The Ubuntu philosophy is grounded in the idea that I am because we are. As doctoral students at Georgia State University (GSU) and P-12 educators, we stand on this principle. This ethos is also fostered by Alpha Upsilon Alpha Honor (AUA), an honor organization under the International Reading Association (IRA), which was founded in 1985 to “recognize and encourage scholarship, the development of personal and professional leadership, and service to the field of reading.”
Ready to present at the IRA Conference
Sparked by our presentation Alpha Upsilon Alpha: Cultivating Scholars and Developing Leaders at the IRA Conference in Chicago in 2012, we, a group of four graduate students collaborate and share our experiences of pursuing a doctoral degree. As members of underrepresented groups (women of color) in academia and society at large, specifically three African Americans and one international student from Turkey, we reflected on our experiences as novice scholars and concluded that AUA has fostered and enhanced our growth in the program. The goals of AUA are cohesively aligned with our doctoral requirements, which serve as a vital support to students in the areas of scholarship, leadership, and service.
Austin and McDaniels say that constructing a positive and professional scholar identity is an essential task for a doctoral student (Analyzing faculty work and rewards: Using Boyer’s four domains of scholarship, 2006). Fortunately, AUA nurtures the development of our academic identities. For example, when Tuba began the doctoral program as an international student at GSU, she tried to navigate between American and Turkish cultures but felt disoriented due to conflicting norms, which further complicated her academic pursuit. She quickly became cognizant of the challenges that come with learning new academic discourses. However, through AUA, she gained comradeship with other members. They revealed to Tuba their similar trepidations of becoming a budding scholar and how they successfully navigated the daunting process of publication. Also, they exchanged strategies to prepare for the IRA 2012 presentation. These spaces provided an opportunity for Tuba to build a community with other novice learners as she began to develop her own academic identities. She began blogging about these experiences and relationships, which led her to develop the website for AUA that disseminates and exchanges scholarly information with colleagues. These activities manifested her research interests of multimodal practices in literacy.
In addition, the support from AUA catapulted Tuba to engage in other learning communities, such as the research team at Global Conversations Literacy Research (GCLR). GCLR is a platform that globally unites scholars such as Brian Street, Bonny Norton, Julia Davies, and James Paul Gee as it explore issues of literacy grounded in innovative research. Tuba contributed to the organization in various ways, including as a developer of Facebook and Twitter pages, a researcher, a facilitator, and a moderator during the presentations. Due to her engagement with AUA, Tuba felt confident to venture out and participate in other learning communities, present at international and local conferences, and share her journey of crafting multiple academic and social identities while navigating across different cultures.
Writing Retreat, and...
Fellowship after the Retreat
Noll and Fox’s research indicates that, “many students believe they lack the knowledge, skills, and experience for the kinds of writing expected by both graduate school professors and scholarly journals” (52nd yearbook of the National Reading Conference, 2003). Therefore, members of AUA started hosting an annual writing retreat to foster the development of scholarly writers. The retreat provided a space for students to focus on writing projects outside of what was required for coursework such as the development of manuscripts, IRB proposals, or research projects. Natasha describes her experience as a “breath of fresh air” because it was difficult for her to allocate time to write outside of what was required for course work. The retreat afforded her an opportunity to finalize a section of a coauthored piece and initiate the IRB process for a study that she was collaborating with another AUA member. The first writing retreat took place at the home of our advisor, Dr. Tinker Sachs. The atmosphere was conducive to our goals for the retreat as there were multiple rooms and areas in the home that allowed for individual writing space.
We started the retreat with breakfast and sharing time where we shared our objectives for the day. We exchanged ideas and created a plan for our writing. Everyone then dispersed to a room to work. When we convened for lunch, we described our progress and we rendered feedback to our peers. We pushed each other to problematize the issue we were writing about, to extend our thinking to include a critical stance, and we suggested resources. This group time was equally important as the independent writing time. We worked to clarify and extend our ideas in order to advance theory and application in our discipline through the support of peers. As a result, Tuba submitted and published her first article Putting multiliteracies into practice: Digital storytelling for multilingual adolescents in a summer program and Kamania and Natasha began the initial phase of a research study. These interactions in and out of the writing group offered us opportunities to enrich our scholarly relationships and academic identities.
Through our interactions, AUA members conceptualized a broader view of literacy by exploring a multitude of research topics. Each member offers a unique approach to his or her scholarly inquiry. These topics include but are not limited to the difficulties and advantages of applying multimodal literacies to classroom activities, critical literacy, teacher development, second language acquisition, culturally relevant pedagogy, experiences of Black women teachers, literacy practices of elementary aged boys, and educational policy. During our exploration, AUA members collaborated and presented at local, national, and international conferences such as TESOL Doctoral Forum in Philadelphia, Georgia Association of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (GATESOL), Georgia Association of Teacher Educators (GATE), International Reading Association (IRA), and American Education Research Association (AERA) in Vancouver, Canada. These presentations have strengthened the members’ understanding of becoming a professional leader in the field of education while presenting our research to multiple academic communities. For example, Natasha, along with her advisor and four other AUA members, published an article, entitled “When Policies Collide with Conviction” in the Language Arts Journal of Michigan about the intent and consequences of educational reading policy. The concept of this article was birthed through conversations that focused on the social, cultural, and political contexts of early literacy development. These scholarly discussions and critical conversations were instrumental among AUA members because we were able to identify ourselves as valuable contributors and change agents. In addition to the article, the AUA members extended their discussion on how educational policies collided with their beliefs in a keynote session that they presented at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in 2011. This presentation led to an opportunity to write a chapter in P.T. Thomas’s edited book, Becoming and Being a Teacher: Confronting Traditional Norms to Create New Democratic Realities (2012). These AUA members developed as leaders in and out of the classroom through collaboration and seeking experiences in various academic platforms.
Apart from conferences and research, our professional membership in AUA goes parallel with our career plans in the field of education. We will continue to conduct groundbreaking research while teaching at a university. Our activism in AUA has empowered us to become members of several other professional and academic organizations, such as IRA, TESOL, AERA, and Middle East Institute, which are aligned with our residency requirements for the doctoral program. Our active engagement and service to professional communities has grounded our academic path.
Service is a major tenant of AUA, and through our work we are contributing to building our community as well as gaining valuable experiences to fuel this personal journey as educators and researchers. The sole responsibility of a scholar is not limited to conducting research and publishing manuscripts; other contributions should include service to our local, national, and international communities. AUA members strive to promote the growth and literacy development of the urban community, which is also a residency requirement. Through service, we were able to become familiar with the city, not just in the physical sense but in becoming a real member of the community.
One member, Nicole, recalled joining AUA and IRA to heighten her awareness of the latest scholarship in literacy, but she has gained so much more. As a first generation college graduate, she revealed how people committed to service and organizations just like AUA were at the core of her educational journey. She stated, “I am from Oakland California and have been part of every program possible from Upward Bound, Summer Bridge, to EOP [Educational Opportunity Program] and was a member of every intervention from the Boys and Girls Club to local community centers. These volunteers modeled for me a real sense of community and sincere passion for building life-long learners. It is with this same passion that I embark on my educational journey.” AUA felt like an extended home for her.
The Ubantu notion, I am because we are, is the foundation for AUA’s community projects. For example, members frequently volunteered at the Genesis Shelter, which provides a “supportive environment that enables homeless newborns and their families to achieve positive life outcomes for this generation and those to come.” AUA members partnered with the shelter to achieve their mission by volunteering in the nursery classrooms. Through several visits, the members learned how to navigate their classroom norms and become a part of the learning community. During one visit, Nicole intended to read a few picture books but her plans were quickly altered when all the children pleaded to repeatedly read a different book. Below is her excerpt of this event:
My first time reading at Genesis was an experience I will never forget. I walked in with my bag of tricks, as most of us teachers have. I was expecting to wow the kids with my favorite book. One page into my read, BEFORE the good part, I was met with opposition. They challenged my selection and requested another book. I then pulled out my next book, another one of my top ten crowd pleasers. Again they were underwhelmed. As I proceeded to the next book and the next they were not thrilled by anything. Finally I put the books aside and asked the five-year-old scholars what they wanted me to read. Their reply was one of my least favorite children’s books, No David by David Shannon. Luckily I had just bought a set of books for my little cousin’s birthday and this book. I ran to my car, tore the wrapping paper off, and re-emerged with their beloved David. They cheered as I read it and we shared stories and had conversations about everything from discipline to friendship. This service experience culminated my year. It put all of the professional training and theoretical understandings in perspective for me. What did I learn from this experience? Part of the value in service is the shared experienced. It is the I am because we are.
During another visit, Kamania played with children outside and learned how they engaged with each other. She observed which groups of children preferred to play certain games. She also code switched with the various discourses utilized by the children, i.e. African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Spanglish, a mixture between Spanish and English). Eventually, the AUA members noticed how the teachers and parents entrusted their young children to us with the expectation that we share a similar goal to provide a safe learning environment for the children. Despite their living conditions, all the adults strived to guide the children towards a love of learning.
Although we are all women of color and positioned as minorities, we still have acquired a form of privilege as scholars earning a doctorate in philosophy of education. We are cognizant of our responsibility to serve our community; specifically, the marginalized students represented in research studies. These students are not just statistics that we read and discuss in courses but they are people, sons and daughters that reside in the same community where the university is located. Therefore, we also volunteer at the Georgia State’s Urban Literacy Clinic, which serve students in the metro-Atlanta area. The mission is to facilitate the implementation of research based lessons for P-12 grade students designed and delivered by pre-service teachers. In return, the students receive complimentary tutorial services. Its aim of equalizing education and providing access to marginalized children is aligned with AUA’s mission of volunteering in the field of reading. In particular, the members researched grants to help keep the center thriving. In addition, AUA conducts an annual book drive for the Urban Literacy Clinic. We collected new and gently used books for the several months to donate to the clinic.
Temperance School in South Africa
Lastly, our plans for serving the community have recently been expanded to an international scope. According to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood” (1968). It is in this spirit that we sponsored a local school known as Temperance Township Primary School located in Gordon’s Bay, Western Cape, South Africa. The organization donated classroom materials that were in high demand at the school in order to better met the instructional needs of the students. Some of the materials included, writing paper, pencils, crayons, and construction paper.
Our membership consists of several international students and new Atlanta residents, and being a first year of doctoral student in a new city can be intimidating. However, through the support of AUA we were cultivated to become members of the community we served. This service component is vital. Regardless, of our nationalities, ethnicities, and backgrounds, these projects bind us.
I Am Because We Are
During the preparation for the IRA conference, we discovered various similarities and a few critical differences in the construction of our new identities as novice scholars and aspiring researchers. We each shared a sense of eagerness to start the doctoral program and later our emotions shifted due to fear of the unknown.We were exposed to unfamiliar terms during coursework, such as, methodology, theoretical framework, critical race theory, grounded theory and many others. This new discourse led us to question our competence and capability of successfully completing the program. Fortunately, with the support from AUA advisor, Dr. Gertrude Tinker Sachs and members, we were able to better navigate the doctoral program. In the pursuit of scholarship, leadership, and service, AUA is grounded in the Ubuntu philosophy: I am because we are.
Kamania Wynter-Hoyte (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a doctoral candidate at Georgia State University with research interests in home and community literacy practices, culturally relevant pedagogy, and critical literacy.
Tuba Angay-Crowder (email@example.com) is a doctoral student at Georgia State University with research interests in L2 writing, academic literacies, and genre-systems approach to writing.
Natasha Thornton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a doctoral candidate at Georgia State University with research interests in culturally relevant pedagogy, teacher development, and formative design.
Nicole Dukes (email@example.com) is a doctoral student at Georgia State University with research interests in urban pre-service teachers, home and community discourse, and writing instruction.
Authors’ Note: A special gratitude is extended to our advisor, Dr. Gertrude Tinker Sachs, for her relentless support in restoring the organization and supporting our IRA presentation and the development of this article.