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Leading the Way

Most of us grow up playing pretend with our peers, acting as doctors, grocers and even superheroes. But for Mario Jackson, “playing” school in the role of teacher wasn’t just a childhood pastime — it foreshadowed a lifelong passion for education.

That lifelong passion paid off: Jackson earned his doctoral degree from the educational leadership, policy and human development program at NC State on May 4.

Born and raised in St. Catherine, Jamaica, he started his foray into “real” teaching at the kitchen table, helping his brothers and their friends with homework. Eventually his talent for instruction blossomed into pursuing an undergraduate degree in science education at the Mico University College in Kingston, Jamaica.

Jackson began his high school teaching career in 2015, leading classrooms in biology, chemistry and physics in Jamaica, the United States and the United Kingdom.

“I quickly realized that I wanted to take on leadership responsibilities with the aim of eventually becoming a principal,” he said.

He decided to pursue a master’s degree in educational management. In that program, Jackson developed an interest in educational policies and research.

“I’ve always been interested in law. In my next life, I’ll be a lawyer,” he joked. But in this life, his interest in the policies that shape our education systems led him to NC State’s educational leadership, policy and human development program, particularly the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis concentration.

What inspired him to enroll at NC State?

“I quickly saw how the research expertise of faculty in the department would provide valuable teaching and mentoring experiences,” he said. “Despite starting my studies during the early stages of the pandemic, my experience did not disappoint.”

From peer support to faculty mentorship, Jackson’s doctoral journey nurtured his development and successes in the field. He published peer reviewed articles, serving as the lead author for all but one. He participated in nationally recognized professional development opportunities including the UCEA Clark and Jackson Scholar Programs, AEI’s Emerging Education Policy Scholars and the Reform Leader Summit.

Jackson also traveled extensively, both within the country and abroad, to share his doctoral research, which focuses on preparing aspiring school leaders to engage in equity-oriented leadership. In his dissertation, Jackson said he “examined how principal preparation programs are engaged in practices geared toward preparing school leaders to mediate inequities across schools.”

He explained that principal preparation is the main educator training focused on effective leadership practices, so it’s the perfect time to focus on equity-oriented leadership.

It’s no surprise that someone with a passion for ethical leadership would also be enthusiastic about fostering a positive community environment. One of Jackson’s favorite parts of his doctoral experience? His fellow graduate students.

“My student peers and I cultivated a climate in which we could support each other while navigating the complexities of graduate school, “ said Jackson.

“There’s a cohesiveness that exists among the Wolfpack. We’re members of a community that commits to strengthening each other.”

Part of that community includes donors who provide funding for essential fellowships for graduate and doctoral students. Jackson earned the Wilcox-Hodnett Doctoral Fellowship, which specifically supports students studying educational policy and research. The fellowship covered the costs of Jackson’s student fees, books and other technological resources.

We’re members of a community that commits to strengthening each other.

This fellowship eased financial stressors and allowed him to “start each semester more prepared and focused.” Support for graduate and doctoral students has been a growing priority at NC State because of students like Jackson — investing in their work is an investment in future leaders.

“The important role played by donors in mediating the educational experiences and outcomes of students, especially those who are marginalized by race and socioeconomic status, cannot be overstated,” Jackson said.

Jackson is moving on to Florida State University, where he will join the faculty as an assistant professor of educational leadership, continuing his research around principal preparation, crisis leadership and educational policies.

When reflecting on his time in the program at NC State, he had advice for future students:

“Your doctoral studies have the potential to be whatever you want it to be. Embrace the experience holistically — learn as much as you can, become engaged in research, service and community, and proactively seek out learning opportunities.”

This post was originally published in Giving News.