The Big Picture Perspective

by Lynn Bell
Curry's master's degree in Social Foundations provides premier preparation for effectiveness in education, advocacy, policymaking, management and more

As Command Senior Chief for the U.S. Coast Guard, Sector Baltimore, Bill Putnam (M.Ed. ’11) is a policy consultant to the Commanding Officer and must be knowledgeable about a wide range issues encompassing workplace climate, crew training, leadership and management, and mentoring.

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Bill PutnamCommand Senior ChiefU.S. Coast Guard Sector Baltimore

His effectiveness received a somewhat serendipitous boost a few years ago, when he earned a master’s degree from the Curry School’s program in Social Foundations of Education

He entered the program in anticipation of teaching in some type of adult education program when he retires from active duty. Yet, he discovered much that was applicable in his current job — most importantly, a clearer perspective from which to consider programs, policies, and practices more holistically and in their broader contexts.

“The confidence and resource repertoire the program provided me to interact across a wide spectrum of individuals and organizations was extremely valuable,” he says. “So much of what I do on a daily basis is, at its core, an educational endeavor.”

Putnam is in company with professionals from a broad spectrum of careers in both public and private sectors who have recognized the value of graduate study in the Curry School’s Social Foundations program.

“The value to current teachers is immediately evident, but those of us in other professional environments also find it extremely helpful to understand the contexts of learning,” Putnam adds.

The Curry School has offered degrees in Social Foundations since 1970. The program focuses on the complex interrelationships between education, schooling, and society, says Derrick P. Alridge, professor of the history of education and Social Foundations program coordinator. Core courses help students examine the intersections of education with class, race, culture, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, equity, and ethics and morality in the U.S. and around the globe.

“Because the Social Foundations of Education program probes education’s big picture issues and analyzes education from disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives, it is often called the humanities of education,” Alridge adds.

The big-picture perspective of the program seems to be what attracts people from so many different professions.

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Celia AlicataDirector Marketing & CommunicationsClassroom, Inc.

“This degree is not only for educators or those desiring to become educators,” says Celia Alicata (M.Ed. ’11), who is director of marketing and communications for Classroom, Inc., in New York.

“I truly believe that our policies at the local, state, and federal level could benefit from people understanding the complex dynamics of systems of schooling,” she adds. “One of the most profound ways to get that experience is to learn about the historical, economic, and cultural foundations of education.”

…that’s what it’s all about—understanding the big picture in order to address the opportunity gaps.

Alicata, who entered the degree program while working as the Federal Policy and Advocacy Manager for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, found that the program gave her a distinctive ability to understand both what she calls the “50,000-foot level of education” and the “on-the-ground undercurrents” that educators face today.

She later spent a year working for Change the Equation (a STEM advocacy organization in Washington, DC) and a year as director of grassroots marketing for Teacher for America before she joined Classroom, Inc., last fall.

“Being someone who used to traverse the challenging education policies at the federal level, my current role is incredibly different now running the communications and marketing for a nonprofit that makes learning game programs for students struggling with literacy,” she says. “Yet, because of Social Foundations, I can see the connections. And that’s what it’s all about—understanding the big picture in order to address the opportunity gaps.”

In many ways, she adds, Social Foundations is a premier program for people who want to get involved in advocacy, policy, and government.

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Katie ZapkoProgram ManagerFederal Agency in Washington D.C.

That focus is also what made the degree ideal for Katie Zapko (M.Ed. ’08). She entered the program thinking that she would work for a social justice nonprofit, preferably overseas. By the time she finished the degree program, the job market was in dire straits, so she volunteered for the Obama-Biden Presidential Campaign.

“Following President Obama’s win, I was one of the lucky ones chosen to work on his Presidential Transition Team until after the inauguration,” she says. “The experience was like no other.”

She believes the focus of the Social Foundations program on political and policy processes helped her land a position as a program manager for a federal agency in Washington, where she works now.

Not only did the coursework challenge her everyday assumptions of societal norms, it helped her recognize the influencers in organizations and prepared her to articulate strategies leading to meaningful change, she says. “Helping an organization focus on change, development and lifelong learning solutions has been very rewarding.”

The master’s degree in Social Foundations is one of a handful of Curry School degrees offered both on Grounds and through the U.Va. Northern Virginia Center, which is the venue through which many professionals have been able to access the program. Three full-time professors join Alridge on the faculty and anchor the program—Diane Hoffman, Daniel Driscoll, and Rachel Wahl—while 14 adjunct instructors include subject matter experts with earned doctorates specializing in anthropology, history, global education, philosophy, sociology, adult learning, education policy, schooling equity and access, multicultural and minority education, and learning and cognition theory.

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Vivian AwumeyManager, Teaching with Primary Resource ProgramLibrary of Congress

Vivian Awumey (M.Ed. ’09) is another Social Foundations alum in the Northern Virginia-DC region who earned her degree off Grounds. She manages the Teaching with Primary Resources program in the Educational Outreach Division of the Library of Congress.

Completing an M.Ed. in Social Foundations of Education was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.

She says she hesitated for several years before finally enrolling in the Social Foundations program because she was not quite sure it fit. Now she has no doubt.

“Completing an M.Ed. in Social Foundations of Education was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made,” she says.

Before entering the program, Awumey says, she could apply management and organizational development skills to her work for the Library, but she lacked an understanding of the historical, social and political forces that shape the environment within which most educators work.

“My learning in the program helped a great deal to remedy that deficiency and added more practicality and nuance to my program design and implementation,” she says.

I would highly recommend this degree for those who work on education policy and advocacy.

Among the additional benefits she names, the Social Foundations program content is applicable to a wide range of circumstances, and it allows students to take electives that tailor their program to meet specific interests and needs.

“I’m so much more effective in my job as a result of this program,” she adds.

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Rob GoldsmithSenior Legislative AssistantRepresentative Bruce Braley’s Office

Rob Goldsmith (M.Ed. ’14) shoehorned in Social Foundations coursework while working as a senior legislative assistant for Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA).

“As someone who works on federal education policy, the courses I took in the program were very valuable and have helped me in my career. I would highly recommend this degree for those who work on education policy and advocacy,” Rob says.

Rob chose the public policy track because it seemed to make the most sense for his career. “While the policy classes were enjoyable and worthwhile, I surprisingly discovered that the other courses were much more valuable for me as a congressional staffer, particularly Sociology of Education, Anthropology of Education and the History of Education,” he says. “These classes brought into focus the real world implications of the policy decisions that have been made in our education system.”

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Karen GardnerExecutive Director of TrainingManTech International (Former FBI Agent)

When Karen E. Gardner (M.Ed. ’02 Soc Fdns, Ed.D. ’06) entered the program, she was a special agent with the FBI thinking ahead to retirement. She says she was “a subject matter expert who’d been thrown into teaching” as an instructor of new agents and analysts.

“I really loved teaching, but Social Foundations gave me a much broader perspective and exposed me to some of the best and brightest in terms of debate and thinking in the field.”

Social Foundations gave me a much broader perspective and exposed me to some of the best and brightest in terms of debate and thinking in the field.

Gardner went on to earn an education doctorate in Administration & Supervision at Curry in 2006 and retired from the FBI the same year. She currently works as executive director of training and organizational development for ManTech International Corporation, while also teaching as an adjunct instructor at George Mason University.

“I found the strength of the program to be the incredibly talented instructors who brought a wealth of experience and perspectives to the classroom,” Gardner adds. “If you want to be an accomplished and reflective practitioner, this degree is essential.”

Of course, the program is eminently applicable to those in the K-12 teaching profession. In fact, about 90 percent of alumni from our off-Grounds Social Foundations M.Ed. program have been preK-12 teachers and administrators.

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Angela Tessier2nd Grade TeacherLoudoun County Public Schools

“Working through the Social Foundations program helped me to tie the many loose ends in the education system together so that I was able to form a deeper understanding of the big picture,” says Angela Tessier (M.Ed. ’13), a second grade teacher in Loudoun County Public Schools.

Tessier points out that an undergraduate course of study for aspiring teachers typically focuses on the theory and practice of teaching and learning, “while the Social Foundation program touches on some of our most human needs as individuals and members of a group.”

She says that the lessons and insights she gained from the program figure into every decision she makes as an educator, mentor, and member of a team.

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Lindsey JonesPh.D. CandidateSocial Foundations

The Social Foundations area of study can also be ideal for people interested in education but not yet sure where they fit in. Lindsey Jones (M.Ed. ’13) fit that category. She entered the program immediately after earning her undergraduate degree.

“Social Foundations seemed like a program that would allow me to find my path in research, policy, advocacy, or some other education-related career,” she says.

The interdisciplinary nature of the master’s program—and the option to take University courses outside of the Curry School—were extraordinarily valuable to her. Although she did not enter the program with plans to pursue a Ph.D., much to her own surprise she is still here working to become a scholar, and she will complete the program well prepared to teach and conduct research in a university setting.

“During my first semester in Social Foundations, I took a course called History of African American Education, taught by Professor Derrick Alridge. Once I started learning about how black people have devised ways to educate ourselves and our children despite legal and social obstacles, I was hooked. I decided that semester to study the history of African American education at the doctoral level,” she says.

Associate Professor Dan Driscoll, who is based in the Northern Virginia Center, has seen better than anyone the truly big picture perspective of the master’s degree program in Social Foundations:

“From kindergarten to higher education, from education advocacy non-profits to the legislative and executive branches, from law enforcement to the military, from corporations to consulting firms, from policy think tanks to global education NGOs, those who teach, instruct and influence have found in Social Foundations’ rich scholarship a source of higher order thinking and theory about what they do and how they do it.”

Social Foundations Faculty

Derrick AlridgeProgram Coordinator & ProfessorSocial Foundations Program
Diane HoffmanAssociate ProfessorSocial Foundations Program
Dan DriscollAssociate ProfessorSocial Foundations Program
Rachel WahlAssistant ProfessorSocial Foundations Program