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NC State College of Education’s Ph.D. in Teacher Education and Learning Sciences Educational Equity Concentration Graduates First Two Students

This December, Valencia Hicks-Harris ’23PHD and Lonnie Manns ’23PHD will be the first two students to graduate from the NC State College of Education’s Ph.D. in Teacher Education and Learning Sciences educational equity concentration.

Both Hicks-Harris and Manns have founded non-profits, Empower All Inc. and Manns Exceptional Community Outreach, respectively, and after graduation they plan to continue to operate their organizations while engaging in teaching and research. 

Meet the first two graduates of the Ph.D. in Teacher Education and Learning Sciences educational equity concentration:

Valencia Hicks-Harris ’23PHD

Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina 

Activities (Research or Extracurricular): Served as a Graduate Student Ambassador assisting with open house events; started Empower All Inc, a nonprofit organization; represented the College of Education at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference; created and implemented the SMASH Summit at NC State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation; served as vice chair of the Graduate Student Association; taught four undergraduate courses in elementary education.

Why did you choose the NC State College of Education?

I chose the NC State College of Education for my doctoral studies for a multitude of reasons, stemming from the incredibly enriching experience I had earning my Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in elementary education. My time as a master’s student at NC State was nothing short of amazing. One of the standout features for me was the opportunity to travel abroad and complete a portion of my student teaching in Beijing, China. This immersive experience not only enhanced my teaching skills, but also broadened my perspective on education and diversity.

The program’s commitment to diversity and inclusion significantly expanded my worldview, providing me with a richer lens through which to view educational practices and challenges. The diverse cohort of students and faculty I interacted with during my master’s studies added a dynamic and stimulating dimension to my learning experience.

The positive outcomes of my MAT program were further solidified when I immediately secured a position with the Wake County Public School System upon graduation. The seamless transition from student to professional underscored the program’s effectiveness in preparing educators for the real-world demands of the field.

Given the enjoyable and fulfilling nature of my master’s program, returning to NC State for my doctoral studies was a natural decision. The commitment to excellence, the global perspective fostered through international experiences and the vibrant community of educators make the NC State College of Education the ideal environment for my continued academic and professional journey.

What does it mean to you to be one of the first graduates in the educational equity concentration?

Being one of the first graduates in educational equity holds profound significance for me. My decision to pursue a Ph.D. in educational equity was driven by a determination to delve deeply into the intersections between the education system, systems of oppression, social justice and cultural pedagogies. My goal was to identify actionable steps that could positively change the trajectory for historically marginalized students, paving the way towards liberation.

Being part of this inaugural cohort is a remarkable honor that goes beyond words. Throughout this journey, I’ve had the advantage of building relationships with like-minded individuals who share a passion for fighting for educational equity. As a Black woman, I understand the weight of representation and being awarded the highest academic degree as one of the first graduates, the first woman and the first Black woman, is a recognition I do not take lightly.

This achievement symbolizes not only personal success, but also a broader contribution to breaking barriers and opening doors for others. It reaffirms the importance of diverse voices and perspectives in academia and I am humbled to be a trailblazer in this field. This journey has fueled my commitment to continue advocating for educational equity and I am excited about the positive impact I can make as I carry this honor into the next chapter of my professional endeavors.

Why is educational equity important to you? 

Educational equity is deeply important to me because it represents the fundamental belief that every individual, regardless of their background, deserves an equal opportunity to succeed in education. As someone who is passionate about social justice, I recognize the transformative power of education in breaking down barriers and empowering individuals. It’s not just about equal access, but about dismantling systemic barriers that perpetuate disparities. Ensuring educational equity is a commitment to justice, fairness and creating a society where everyone, regardless of their circumstances, can reach their full potential. It’s about recognizing and addressing the unique needs of diverse learners, fostering inclusivity and, ultimately, building a more just and equitable future for all.

What do you hope to accomplish in your field after graduation?

My post-graduation aspirations center around being an advocate for transformative education, equipping teachers with the tools to create culturally responsive and STEAM-infused classrooms and demonstrating the practical application of educational theories through community engagement. I am committed to making a positive and meaningful impact on the educational landscape, fostering a future where every student has the opportunity to thrive.

What’s your next step? What do you have planned after graduation?

My post-graduation plans involve a dual focus on expanding the impact of Empower All Inc. and continuing to contribute to the world of education through teaching at the collegiate level. These steps align with my overarching goal of making a meaningful and lasting difference in the field of education.

RELATED STORY: Mental Health, STEAM And Hip-Hop: Doctoral Student Valencia Hicks-Harris Works to Empower All Through Non-profit Organization

How has the College of Education prepared you for that next step?

The College of Education has been instrumental in my passion and urgency to move from theory to action. The College has equipped me with the skills and mindset needed to make a tangible impact in education, preparing me for the next step.

Why did you choose education?

I chose education due to the profound influence of my family, particularly my mother, who was my first teacher. Growing up in a family of educators, her infectious passion and dedication inspired me. With her 50-year teaching legacy, I find myself echoing her mannerisms, perpetuating a commitment to education and a deep appreciation for its transformative power. It’s a fulfilling journey, shaped by familial values and a shared dedication to shaping young minds.

Lonnie Manns ’23PHD

Hometown: Columbus, Ohio; currently residing in Apex, North Carolina

Activities (Research or Extracurricular): Exploring the first-person perspectives of Black autistic youth.

Why did you choose the NC State College of Education?

NC State has an excellent reputation.

What does it mean to you to be one of the first graduates in the educational equity concentration?

I am honored to be in this initial cohort because my peers are impressive. 

Why is educational equity important to you? 

This is important for me because I have an autistic son. Sure, he has some challenges, but he is also brilliant. We must have an education edifice that identifies, promotes and exploits student assets as opposed to focusing on student “deficits” and challenges. Children need to experience educational successes because success builds confidence and becomes cumulative. In terms of educational equity and social justice, I am not just talking about the traditional notion of access and opportunity. An equity education begins with student assets and skills. Historically, multiple scholars have discussed education and educational challenges in terms of finance and financial nomenclature (ex. funds of knowledge, community cultural wealth, social capital, Gloria Ladson-Billings’ concept of educational debt). I wanted to pull that string and reimagine educational equity in terms of financial equity. 

The K-12 educational experience of children with disabilities, especially autism, should be worth something. At the end of that period, students’ education should have tangible value that offers choices for students based on their interests, needs and abilities. That is, in the same way equity accrues in a home, value or equity should accrue within the education of individual students. What has my child’s educational experience prepared my child for when he leaves school? If the answer is nothing, there is, by definition, a lack of equity within that educational experience for my child. This is what educational equity must address.  So often, youth with disabilities, especially autism, find themselves isolated and unprepared after high school because they have not been provided an equitable education. I think about this in my dissertation. If deficit remediation by way of an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) is the dominant feature of a student’s educational resume, we have harmed the very children we were supposed to help.  

What do you hope to accomplish in your field after graduation?

I plan on continuing to conduct autism research with populations often not included in autism research. Also, parents often discuss a lack of social opportunities for their children on the spectrum and, in a small way, I wanted to address that need by facilitating events. I started a nonprofit a year ago, Manns Exceptional Community Outreach (MECO). I provide free, quarterly activities for autistic youth and their families; I have hosted events at Marbles Kids Museum; and I have an upcoming event at Urban Air. 

What’s your next step? What do you have planned after graduation?

I have a postdoc at the university that I will be focused on. I hope to continue conducting research, especially regarding the educational experiences of autistic youth of color, because very little research exists that includes the voices of these youth. Additionally, now that I have completed my dissertation, I can dedicate time and attention to my nonprofit.

How has the College of Education prepared you for that next step?

I had the opportunity to work with [Associate Professor] Crystal Chen Lee and [Associate Professor] Jamie Pearson on various projects, allowing me to do research, present at national conferences and publish in peer-reviewed journals. I am thankful for that experience and exposure. I also took a seminar in special education literacy with [College of Education Lecturer] Jody Cleven, which was absolutely eye-opening. I think I learned the most in that class than in perhaps any other class I have ever taken. It taught me how to individualize an approach to helping me support my child and his reading comprehension challenges. Today, my child is on grade level in reading, largely because of what I learned in that class. 

Why did you choose education?

I needed to learn how to support my child and I did not have the tools to teach him. Going back to school for education gave me the tools to teach my child despite his learning differences. 

My son had expressive, receptive and pragmatic speech delay concerns that were even more pronounced in school. The school system wanted us to put him in a cross-categorical kindergarten classroom, but I refused. There was a disconnect between their perspective of my child’s ability and my understanding of my son’s potential. For example, communication differences do not necessarily mean intellectual deficit. Today, our son is in the fifth grade and loves attending school. He has an interest in languages and takes Spanish, Japanese and German. I do not believe the professionals who conducted his initial evaluation could have imagined that it would be possible for my child to be where he is educationally today. This is only possible because we always viewed our child in terms of his strengths and not his challenges.