When it was time for Lee Williams to choose a major, he considered the typical questions – like possible career paths, salary expectations and course loads. But there was something else on his mind: How could he use the opportunities and privileges he’d been afforded to help others who might not have been so lucky?
Originally from St. Augustine, Florida, Lee is now a fourth-year double-major in Psychology and the Curry School’s Youth and Social Innovation – plus a recently declared minor in Statistical Analysis of Social Behavior.
Looking back, he can see that his decision to pursue a degree in the Curry School of Education has roots in the volunteer work that he did in high school, where he developed an early interest in public service.
The fact that both of his parents were teachers, he admits, could also have something to do with it.
Either way, Lee strongly believes that education is a driver of social and economic mobility.
“I see education as a lever for putting people on the right track and allowing them to avail themselves of their own personal resources, as opposed to having their life outcomes dictated by circumstance,” he said.
Yet Lee didn’t think a traditional teaching degree felt right. He was more interested in the larger forces that shape educational programs and policy. When he stumbled on the Youth and Social Innovation program, he knew he’d found the right fit.
In a broad sense, YSI is about building social programs and policies that support positive youth development. For Lee, that translated to coursework that allowed him to explore the intersection of psychology, education policy, and teaching.
“It hit the sweet spot of what I was interested in,” he said. “Not necessarily being a teacher, but being involved in education and trying to turn the dial for disadvantaged students.
“We learn about educational psychology, we learn about the policy of education, and we also learn some tools that teachers use – like classroom management, adolescent development, student motivation. I think it balances those things very well, where you can take the major in a lot of different directions based on your interests.”
He was drawn to the flexibility of the program, as well as its focus on applied learning through hands-on involvement in both community programs and research. For all YSI students, research is a key part of the curriculum: research credits and experience in a lab are required for graduation.
For Lee, the pieces really clicked together when he realized a YSI major allowed him to engage his interest in the theoretical framework of psychology while actively making a real, tangible impact on the field of education. In an introductory class as a second-year, Lee examined prior research on social psychological interventions in education. Right away, he was hooked on the idea of using scientific research to make a difference through education.
Soon after, he landed a Research Assistant position in the Curry School, working 10 hours a week with the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Project (VKRP). He has continued his work with VKRP throughout his college career, transitioning into a paid position separate from his coursework.
For most undergrads, that amounts to an exceptional amount of research experience. But with such an early start, and the support of YSI faculty, Lee was able to go further by starting his own research project.
In the spring of his second year, with guidance from professor Winx Lawrence and associate professor Chris Hulleman, Lee received a grant to lead his own social belonging research project. Using prior literature on the mechanisms of social belonging, he and his team partnered with a local high school to learn about student perceptions of belonging during the transition from middle to high school. They examined how social belonging relates to social-emotional outcomes and academic performance during this important transition period.
Past studies have suggested that when a student feels a sense of belonging in school, he tends to get better grades, be more engaged, and even report higher levels of physical and mental wellbeing.
He is conducting this research as part of the Curry School’s Motivate Lab.
“One of the main reasons I’ve even gotten involved with the Motivate Lab, and one of the only reasons I got the grant and was able to start my own research project, was through Winx,” he said. “The YSI faculty really make the program what it is. Our classes are all 20-25 students, and it’s more like a collaboration than a lecture. They also have real connections with people in the Charlottesville community who are looking for volunteers or interns, and they share that with us.”
As a psychology double-major, Lee connects with the Motivate Lab’s specific approach of examining education from a social psychologist perspective. “The application of social psych principles to education is what really captured my attention,” he said. “So it has been very cool to see the crossover between the two, and to look at how research and psych have applications in the realm of education.”
This past summer, he continued working with the Motivate Lab to build on initial results and continue the project. This time, the team is working to gather data on how social belonging and student outcomes might interact over a longer period of time.
Connecting Science to the Real World
Throughout his college career, Lee has appreciated the overlap between his psychology, statistics, and education studies. He says his statistics courses have helped him to better analyze, interpret, and present his data, while general psychology courses have given him a strong foundation in theoretical psychology.
But it’s YSI’s focus on the combination of scientific rigor with social programming that’s helped him turn his varied interests into a career path. Through his studies at UVA, Lee has become a strong advocate for the use of objective, scientific data in the field of education. He doesn’t just want to do science – he wants to translate scientific research and data into programs and policies that make a measureable difference in the world. He sees education as the perfect place to pursue that goal.
“In education, a lot of policy decisions made by leaders are ‘common sense’ approaches that don’t necessarily stand up to evaluation,” he said. “The rigor of research and evaluation is the best way of creating programs and policies that are actually going to work.”
Lee believes that the social sciences, fields that are often swayed by politics, subjective methods, and assumptions, need scientific research just as much as the natural sciences, if not more. The Curry School is an example of where this is happening. Now, as he prepares for graduation, he hopes he can help make that happen. He sees this path as his way to give back – to use the opportunities he’s been given in life to create opportunities for others.
Just like when he came into college, Lee isn’t quite sure what he’ll do next. He might pursue graduate school, or hands-on teaching experience, or maybe a position with a nonprofit, think tank, or research firm. But wherever he goes, he plans to continue building on the experience he’s found at Curry – working to make a difference in students’ lives by bringing research out of the lab and into the classroom.