College of Education > News and Publications > 2018: 04-06 news > Dean's Graduate Assistantship program attracts the best students to the College of Education

Dean's Graduate Assistantship program attracts the best students to the College of Education

The Dean's Graduate Assistantship (DGA) for Engaged Scholarship and Research in Education in the College of Education was established in 2010 to support exceptional students working toward a doctoral degree. As of January 2017, DGAs guarantee four years of funding for recipients.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a child growing up in Nepal, Sagun Giri didn't know exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. He just knew that whatever career he chose, he wanted to make an impact on the lives of others.

"I've always, always wanted to help people, contribute in some way to make someone's life better," he said, adding that it is fitting that he found his way to the field of education. Now, thanks to a unique research opportunity in the College of Education, Giri is closer to his goal of helping others.

The Dean's Graduate Assistantship (DGA) for Engaged Scholarship and Research in Education in the College of Education was established in 2010 to support exceptional students working toward a doctoral degree. DGAs allow students to complete their assistantship within their academic department and work with their adviser to complete research related to their professional goals and interests. As of January 2017, DGAs guarantee four years of funding for recipients. The up-front commitment to multiple years of funding makes a DGA a particularly attractive form of graduate student support.

Giri is one of 33 DGAs across the College of Education. Currently in his third year in the Learning, Design and Technology doctoral program, his research focuses on education in informal spaces and children's computational thinking when working with digital and physical fabrication toolkits and apps.

Sagun Giri
Sagun Giri, a third-year doctoral student and DGA recipient studying learning, design and technology, models two prototypes related to maker spaces research he works on with his adviser Gabriela Richard, assistant professor of education (learning, design and technology). The glove is a wearable game controller that lights up, vibrates or makes a sound when the user performs an action. The project integrates diverse skills such as coding, crafting, game design and physical computing. The necklace is a unidirectional project, which combines the Lilypad Arduino, LEDs, crafting and coding.

"I come from a country where in remote areas, children have to walk 2 1/2 hours just to go to school," Giri said, explaining that access to education is a national issue in Nepal. "But I thought that if all of those infrastructures such as computer labs are built, access to education is something that technology could solve."

Fellow DGA recipient Marlon Fernandez-Castro also understands the importance of an education and wants to make it an opportunity for others like him. Born the oldest of three children to Mexican-immigrant parents, he is a first-generation student who has earned bachelor and master degrees, and currently is completing his second year in the higher education doctoral program. He has a strong support system, he said, and his parents have always pushed the importance of education.

"My parents have an atypical story in terms of what is considered normal in the public discourse of immigration," Fernandez-Castro said. "Both of my parents have higher education degrees in Mexico — bachelor degrees. But because they came to the United States as undocumented, their degrees weren't recognized by employers. So even though they had degrees and the education to pass on to me and my siblings, they could not get the jobs that they were qualified for."

He and his brothers had certain privileges that come from having an educated family, but they did not have the financial resources that typically accompany education. For Chicano men in southern California, he said, it's not easy picturing yourself as a college student.

"As an undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara, I was involved in a student organization that specifically focused on Latino men in higher education and there was a lot of overlap between being a Latino man in college and being a first-generation student," Fernandez-Castro said.

It was through that organization that he started developing an interest in higher education diversity initiatives and accessibility to higher education for students of color and from low-income families.

"We did a lot of outreach work. We would bring high school students from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara for a weekend and we showed them the school," he said "We wanted them to see students who looked like them, that there's students like them in college and college is an option for them. And we would work to give them the tools and connections that they may need to be in a better position to reach higher education."

After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Fernandez-Castro enrolled in the University of Southern California's student affairs graduate program, where he worked with the Center for Urban Education. He worked closely with the center's then-co-director, Alicia Dowd, on research aimed at increasing higher education accessibility for minoritized and underrepresented students.

"The center focused on research that looked at the responsibilities of institutions instead of placing all that responsibility on the students," he said. "So rather than saying that these students aren’t seeking out the services that they need to be successful, it's about teaching practitioners to question what they are doing as institutional agents that is preventing these students from not using services."

As he continued to work with Dowd, Fernandez-Castro's research interests and academic goals became clearer — he wanted help create change to make higher education more racially equitable and accessible. He also knew that he wanted to continue working with Dowd, a top researcher in her field. But when it came time to apply for doctoral programs, Dowd announced that she was leaving USC to join the faculty at Penn State.

Fernandez-Castro said he was at a loss and wasn't sure what to do. He wanted to work with Dowd but, if accepted to a doctoral program, he wasn't sure he could afford it.

Guaranteed funding

"I applied at Penn State and two other schools, but Penn State had the best program," Fernandez-Castro said. "I also really loved the work that Alicia was doing and wanted to continue working with her. She is the main reason I applied to Penn State. Being from California, I really didn't know much about Penn State."

Marlon Fernandez-Castro
Marlon Fernandez-Castro is a first-generation student who came to the College of Education because he wanted to continue working with his master's adviser, Alicia Dowd, professor of education (higher education). Until he found out he was awarded a DGA, he did not think attending Penn State was an option.

Fernandez-Castro was accepted to three other schools and the primary determining factor, he said, was based on which school could offer the best financial aid package. Although he loved working with Dowd and wanted to continue that work, he knew he had to enroll in a program that was financially feasible.

"I didn't even know about DGA," he said. Many students don't. That's because students can't apply for the DGA program. Instead, program faculty and advisers must nominate students whom they believe meet the qualifications. Advisers must complete a nomination packet that includes a letter of support that distinguishes the nominee from other applicants and explains the match of skills and interests with the adviser. The nomination packet is then evaluated along with the student's Graduate School admissions application.

"When I received the offer letter with the DGA information, it solidified my decision to come to Penn State," Fernandez-Castro said. "It let me know that I would be well situated, at least financially, as well as allow me to do the research I was interested in."

Being offered the DGA was also a determining factor for Giri, who was considering offers from three other universities.

"Penn State's LDT program is highly recommended and after interviewing with all four universities, I thought Penn State had a genuine match of research interest and the program was very appealing. Then I learned I was offered a DGA," he said.

"Ultimately, as a graduate student, an international graduate student, education is very expensive," Giri said. "The guaranteed funding allows student to complete their comprehensive exams and work on data collection and analysis for their dissertation without having the added constant pressure of 'I need to find a job' or 'where is my summer funding coming from.'"

The four-year guaranteed funding also is the reason first-year doctoral student Jonathan McCausland returned to his alma mater.

"I was accepted to the University of Colorado and Michigan State and both offered financial packages," McCausland said. "But because of the DGA offer, the money was more stable and it was more than I was offered at the other schools. It was a pretty big part of my decision, especially since I moved with my girlfriend and I needed to have money that was secure because we weren't sure how difficult it would be for her to find employment."

McCausland, who graduated from the College of Agricultural Sciences in 2015, comes from a family of Penn State alumni and said being able to return to the University Park campus is something that means a lot to him.

"To imagine myself at a different school was very difficult," he said. "The DGA and the mentorship that I'm receiving from Penn State stands out above any other school I applied to."

The 'best and brightest'

According to College of Education Dean David H. Monk, the fundamental goal of the DGA program is to recruit top-tier doctoral students who have a research focus.

"By recruiting the best and brightest students, we can pair them with our faculty and really showcase the research talent that exists in the college," Monk said.

That talent is demonstrated through the strong matches between faculty researchers and student researchers.

"We look for common interests and eagerness to work together that can lead to additional external funding around high priority research projects and interests," Monk said when explaining his goals and visions for the program.

Giri and Fernandez-Castro both cited a match in research interests and a desire to work with top faculty as key factors in attending Penn State. That was no different for McCausland.

McCausland, who is obtaining a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, works with Scott McDonald, associate professor of education (science education) and director of the Krause Studios for Innovation. As a Penn State alumnus, he knew of McDonald's academic reputation and the two had the opportunity to work together when McCausland was an undergraduate student.

"I had the pleasure of advising Jonathan when he was working on his Schreyer Honors thesis and even at that point, it was clear that he was a serious thinker and someone who really pursued intellectual challenges with a lot of energy," McDonald said.

McDonald was impressed with McCausland's ambition, he said. After graduating from Penn State with a degree in environmental resource management, he went on to earn his teaching credentials at Brooklyn College in New York City and worked as a teacher in a high-needs school in the city.

Jonathan McCausland
Penn State alumna Jonathan McCausland was excited to return to Penn State for his doctoral studies and after learning he was awarded a DGA, he knew that he would not have to worry about the financial stress that accompanies most graduate programs.

"Working in a high-needs school can be one of the most challenging contexts to do innovation teaching," McDonald said. "But yet, he was able to thrive. And on top of that, while he was doing that teaching, he was already thinking about how to become a better teacher and develop research that would help teachers become better. That is the sort of practical scholar that I think we need more of in academia."

So when McClausland applied to the doctoral program with a focus on science education, McDonald knew he would be a perfect addition to his research team.

Since joining the college in August, McCausland is part of a team of students who are working with McDonald to redesign the teacher education program in secondary science education. As part of the redesign, the team is working with mentor teachers and field supervisors to build stronger collaborations and are refocusing courses on more ambitious and effective forms of science teaching and the Next Generation Science Standards.

"We also are collecting data on how preservice teachers learn to teach by examining the development of their professional vision in science teaching," McDonald said.

More research, more possibilities

Completing a doctoral program is a full-time commitment. It involves a heavy course load as well as the pursuit of an intensive research agenda. Students also are expected to present at conferences, publish research and find a way to conduct their dissertation research. Many students struggle with these demands because of outside obligations related to full or part-time work. Yet, that work is typically necessary in order for students to stay enrolled in their programs.

"As someone who began my own doctoral studies working full time, I quickly recognized that the cognitive and time demands of my full-time position were not commensurate to my academic goals," said Gabriela Richard, assistant professor of education (learning, design and technology), who also serves as the faculty adviser to Giri.

"While I was able to apply for and successfully obtain a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in order to pursue full-time doctoral study, the program is highly competitive," she said. "The DGA allows us to attract a diverse pool of both national and international students who are dedicated to rigorous academic scholarship and trajectories in the academy."

McDonald agreed, and he said he appreciates the academic freedom the program affords.

"I think the DGAs provide both students and faculty a wonderful academic freedom so that they can together pursue areas of scholarship that are emergent and initially less fundable from external sources. This allows students to avoid supporting their research with other work such as with a teaching assistantship or working on a funded project unrelated to their research interests," McDonald said.

Richard, who began her career at Penn State at the same time Giri enrolled in the doctoral program, believes the DGA program is extremely important for the college, its doctoral students and its faculty. For junior faculty members like Richard, securing external funding for research can be a difficult task. Working with a DGA not only helps the faculty member complete research, it also provides the student with more hands-on research experience.

"While I recognize funding is limited by many very real constraints, I would encourage that we increase these kinds of opportunities for promising graduate students matched with new or junior faculty who may be getting their research agendas up and running," she said.

Her vision is shared by Dean Monk, who envisions strong, continued growth for the DGA program.

"We've been committed to raising the salary grade level of the stipends and expanding the size of the cohorts and plan to continue growing the size of the cohort," he said.

"It's been wonderful to see the successes of the students who entered the program in its early years and who have now gone on to pursue exciting careers as scholars in the field. The program is allowing the College of Education to achieve some of its most important goals as it seeks to deepen and extend knowledge about the formations and utilization of human capabilities."

By Jessica Buterbaugh (April 2018)