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Sargeant Donovan-Smith, New York, NY

Sargeant Donovan-Smith started out as an Econ major and didn’t branch out much into the humanities during college. After graduation, she joined the Peace Corps and worked primarily as an accounting assistant for a farmers’ association in rural Paraguay. After that, she took a Masters in mathematics education, thinking she would become a math teacher.

After two years of teaching high school math in the South Bronx, she saw a job posting for a teaching position in Liberia. Teaching abroad was something she had always wanted to do, and without hesitation she leaped at the opportunity. She dropped everything, sold her belongings, and got on a flight to Liberia. Sargeant’s collective experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer and an educator ignited the intellectual curiosity that has led her to pursue a PhD in Anthro-History.

In Liberia she began to understand precisely which questions about education, power, and the world really inspired her. “There’s this understanding about education, that it produces a certain kind of being. It’s transformative.”  But after the war, Liberia’s high school students ranged in age from 16 to 40, and their classrooms had been stripped bare. Most schools’ curricula were twenty years old. There were few educational resources. Still, Sargeant explained, “Students felt that they were transforming themselves—just not necessarily as teachers understand their transformation, in terms of learning milestones, etc.”

It was that realization that brought her to her research questions, which consider how education can transform people in the absence of material support. She asks, “What kind of anti-hegemonic power do students have when there are no materials for them?” “How do students articulate a sense of self and attempt to transform themselves into ‘educated’ beings?” “What does it mean to be ‘educated’?”

For Sargeant, these questions—questions much bigger than her Liberia experience—about education and power in the world—are what drive her and give her what she describes as a sense of urgency to dig into her research.  She attributes her inspiration to pursue a PhD to the close relationships she developed with farmers while in Paraguay, her profoundly insightful students and colleagues in Liberia, and her academic advisors and mentors.