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Amazing Student: Phaidra Buchanan

February 17, 2020

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Foundation Fellow and future educator Phaidra Buchanan has taken advantage of all the “out-of-this-world opportunities” UGA offers beyond the scholarship, from study abroad programs to research opportunities “and so much more.”

Hometown:

Tyrone, GA

High school:

Sandy Creek High School

Current employment:

I develop instructional resources for local history teachers under the direction of Dr. Hahamovitch in the history department. Not only is this a great opportunity to find interesting primary sources and brush up on my content knowledge, but I also get to create materials that I can use one day in my classroom. I have also been awarded a CURO research assistantship, which I am using to investigate pre-service teachers’ attitudes about the role of culture in teaching math with the help of Dr. White in the math education department.

Family ties to UGA:

My sister, Portia, and I are the first in our family to come to the University of Georgia, but I think we’re the perfect team to start a new tradition!

Expected graduation:

Spring 2021

Degree objective:

B.S. Ed. Social Studies Education

Other degrees:

Minor in German

University highlights, achievements, awards and scholarships:

One of my favorite parts of my time in Athens is U-Lead, an organization that provides educational support, scholarships and mentoring to local students of various immigrant backgrounds and documentation statuses. As a second-generation immigrant whose life was shaped by my parents’ educational attainment, I’m proud to have served as a college coach, tutored in math, and enjoyed spending time with such brilliant, passionate and fun students since my first year.

In the summer of my first year, I enrolled in a Maymester at the University of Oxford with my cohort of Foundation Fellows. I chose to take “Computing Ethics,” and I enjoyed grappling with the difficult questions the class posed about rights, justice and the future. The Foundation Fellowship supplied me with enough funds to spend a few weeks afterward backpacking through Europe with other Fellows and my siblings, which will be a memory I always cherish.

In my summers, I write problems for a math competition at Morehouse College, and a professor there recommended that I get in touch with associate professor Dorothy White in my second year at UGA. She graciously offered to let me observe her research, and soon after, I began working with her on the Cultural Awareness in Mathematics Unit Project (CAM Up!). The research team analyzes pre-service K-12 teachers’ perceptions of cultural diversity in math and science classroom settings. This research has also led me to reflect on my own attitudes about the role of culture in my teaching and how I can bring students’ lives into my lessons.

I returned from summer break invigorated and ready to take on the next semester, and I jumped into “Team-Based Problem Solving,” a class in the Honors Program. In this class, I worked with MOB Athens, Athens’ Minority-Owned Business directory. As the team lead, I explored parts of Athens that I had never been to before, learned about the city’s growing community of entrepreneurs, and connected those entrepreneurs to resources that can support them.

In the next semester, I analyzed institutional diversity and created a diversity leadership action plan for the Office of Institutional Diversity through the Leaders Engaged in Affirming Diversity (LEAD) Program. The program introduced me to several administrators and other leaders at the university and speak frankly and at length with them about their work to make the University of Georgia more accessible and equitable.

Over the summer, I participated in the UGA Study Abroad in Freiburg, Germany, to both refine my German and learn more about the city’s sustainability practices. Every new interaction was a learning experience, including visiting an old friend from my high school German exchange program.

This academic year has been just as fulfilling as the last few. I shared my undergraduate experience with high school seniors and their parents in UGA’s First Look Academic Panels, took local historians on a tour of Athens with other prospective social studies teacher candidates, and began student teaching — a joy in every sense of the word. A true highlight of the year was joining professor Cynthia Dillard and other participants in the Ghana Study Abroad in Education! (GSAE) program. I was able to study under both the master teachers in Ghana and the other members of the cohort, all of which had priceless insights into what education can be, specifically for students of the African diaspora.

The Foundation Fellowship also includes spring break trips. Among other things, I was able to see Stephen Colbert live and a Broadway show in New York, and I met Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in Washington, D.C. I learned about the cultural and political context of Bali, Indonesia, firsthand, and next, I’ll be walking in Socrates’s shoes in Greece.

Awards and Scholarships:

  • Foundation Fellowship: This scholarship covers tuition, living expenses, travel-study, and research grants for four years of my undergraduate education
  • National Merit Scholarship
  • Melanie A. Burden Community Arts Award: This award recognizes community service and mentoring young women
  • UGA Presidential Scholar: This is for earning a 4.0 GPA in a semester

I chose to attend UGA because…

… of its combination of out-of-this-world opportunities and affordability. My triplet siblings and I were all going off to college at once, so I wanted to find the best choice for my family just as much as I wanted to fall in love with a school personally. Fortunately, UGA made that easy. I knew that the College of Education would help me become the kind of educator I want to be, because the College of Ed embodied the qualities I hoped to develop in myself: a drive for excellence, boundless kindness and a commitment to equity and justice. On top of that, being offered the Foundation Fellowship introduced me to all of the opportunities UGA has to offer within and beyond the scholarship: study abroad programs, research opportunities and so much more. I decided to dive in headfirst, and I’ve never looked back.

My favorite things to do on campus are…

… watching friends in their element. There are so many exciting events on campus, and I could never keep up with them all if the people in my life weren’t so involved and talented. They’ve connected me to ballroom dancing, cultural performances like Africa Night and Caribbean Night, and student presentations on every academic subject you can think of. I also love spending my time at the most scenic spots on campus like the Founders Memorial Garden and Lake Herrick, and movie screenings at the Tate Center are always a good time.

When I have free time, I like…

… to hang out with my fabulous sister. We make a point of going out and exploring restaurants in Athens when we can, but her commentary on a Netflix stay-at-home day is also priceless. And of course, both of us will always jump at the chance to call our brother and catch up as triplets. I love listening to podcasts, both for information and for fun, and I enjoy all forms of political satire. Recently, a local historian I connected with through a history course gave me a tour of historical sites in the city, and I definitely intend to take her up on her offer to keep those going!

The craziest thing I’ve done is…

… snorkeling in Bali during a spring break trip funded by the Foundation Fellowship. At first, I thought I would mention trying my hand at surfing there, but snorkeling was even more mind-blowing (and I was much better at it). Jellyfish were everywhere, but I decided to stay in the water because I couldn’t miss out on the view! Luckily, the jellyfish left me alone, so the most exciting part for me was the speedboat ride there and back.

My favorite place to study is…

… one of the top floors in the Main Library. All of those books and a panoramic view of Athens help me feel the part of a studious, productive professional. For more intense studying, the Miller Learning Center is a great place to meet with my classmates and pool our knowledge.

My favorite professor is…

I could never pick just one, and there are too many to fully list here, so I’ll limit myself to 10 and only talk about each briefly. I hope everyone who has guided me through my time at UGA knows that I appreciate them and will never forget their kindness.

Dr. Dan Coenen has been a blessing since before I committed to UGA. Without his kindness during the process, I probably would have stammered my way out of consideration for the Foundation Fellowship. Over the years, I’ve learned more and more about how his kindness reaches across campus and far into the community, which I admire greatly.

Dr. Brigitte Rossbacher, Dr. Heide Crawford and the fabulous German department have broadened my horizons, built my confidence and showed me what it means to reach every student.

Dr. Dorothy White taught me about what it takes to turn my ideals about equity into a practice, the true meaning of mentoring and how I can weave spontaneous joy into every moment.

Dr. Bettina Love showed me how high the stakes truly are in the field of education and that my role is not to teach survival, but to teach life.

Dr. David Williams taught me the value in learning about those who I disagree with or do not understand. He showed me new ways of being involved in the community and sparks my intellectual curiosity every time I see him.

Along with taking me as an informal teaching assistant, Dr. Quincy Brewington took two hours a week to sit in a rocking chair and talk to me about teaching, current events and life. More than anything else, he kept me grounded and helped me keep in touch with where I come from.

Dr. Cynthia Dillard showed me that no dream is too far-fetched when it comes to touching students’ lives and that our connections as human beings are fundamental to understanding our role as students and teachers.

Dr. Cindy Hahamovitch taught me that history is everywhere and in all things and that finding it requires exploration and a heavy dose of enthusiasm.

Dr. Denise Spangler made my connections with many of these professors possible. Her example showed me that the higher you rise, the farther you can lift those coming behind you.

If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with…

… Stephen Colbert. “The Colbert Report” launched me into the world of politics, and I’ve followed him to “The Late Show.” Yes, he’s hilarious and sharp, but he is also full of wisdom, especially when it comes to finding joy in engaging with the world, which is not easy. He taught me that opening your heart to feel for and advocate for others is an act of courage, one that leaves you vulnerable yet stronger as a result. At times that can make you want to retreat into self-interest and stoicism, I want to be able to inspire people to save a smile for one another, just like he inspired me. Also, I probably wouldn’t be able to resist trying to get on his show.

If I knew I could not fail, I would…

… restructure America’s system of school funding. My mother received an excellent primary and secondary education in Guyana despite her lower socioeconomic status, and her educational achievement was pivotal to her ability to find her way here in the United States. If she were born here, however, her educational opportunities might have hinged on the value of the property of her neighbors or the war chest of the local Parent Teacher Association. I’d want to create a progressive system where schools with greater need receive additional resources.

If money was not a consideration, I would love to…

… pamper my grandmothers beyond belief. My great-grandmother and my two grandmothers hold up my family as though we were weightless, and together they are my North Star. They’ve all enjoyed hearing about my studies abroad, but I would fly them out so they could see these places for themselves. I can imagine my grandmother on my mother’s side comparing German pedagogy to her own teaching style. My grandmother on my father’s side would love integrating Balinese cooking techniques into her soul food recipes from Tuskegee, and my great-grandmother would feel right at home bringing her Guyanese dance moves to a Ghanaian beat.

What is your passion and how are you committed to pursuing it?

I’ve always enjoyed being a part of people’s journeys. To me, education is both learning about the wider world and self-discovery. What made me want to be a teacher was recognizing that our internal worlds are just as vast as any social studies curriculum, and that half of the joy of teaching is learning what your students bring to the classroom on day one. In a perfect world, as a teacher, I would spend all of my time encouraging students to investigate their personal history, explore unfamiliar contexts, and pursue their interests and dreams. My students would know that I love them and that my classroom is a place where they can be their authentic selves with no fear. In a perfect world, my only objective would be inspiring a love of self and a love of learning.

This is not, however, a perfect world.

My role as a teacher also involves understanding and combating the obstacles that might stand between my students and the potential resting within them. As I show my students resilience and ingenuity throughout the ages, they will also see the roots of injustices that demanded that resilience and persist to this day. I am committed to teaching my students how to advocate for themselves and each other, and I will teach that in part by modeling, advocating for them. Athens has shown me that educational systems are intertwined with, not separate from, the historical, social and political contexts that surround them, and that partnership with those communities is essential to effectively navigating those contexts. As a teacher in my imperfect world, I want students to learn that yes, life isn’t fair, but that life being unfair means that their joy, their authenticity, and their collective talents are more necessary than ever.

After graduation, I plan to…

… teach and learn! I see myself as a high school social studies teacher for at least five to 10 years, if not forever. In that role, I hope to help students understand their personal historical context, their political and social reality, and the skills they need to participate in society in a way that reflects their perception of their role in the world. I intend to pursue additional graduate education to sharpen my skills as a teacher as I progress and possibly become a teacher educator one day. I’m also very interested in the educational system on a larger scale, especially when it comes to the teaching profession and equity issues, so I’m open to studying education law or policy with a focus on teacher retention, school segregation and tracking within schools.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…

… picking strawberries with Dr. White and the rest of my research team. After a few hours of reading about culturally responsive pedagogy and blinding our data, Dr. White suddenly suggested the outing and said, “Let’s go!” How could I say no? I will always be able to picture laughing with these extraordinary black women I look up to so much while enjoying the fruits of our labor and the best strawberry ice cream I have ever had. I am so lucky to be in a place where that kind of spontaneous joy and investment in students has proven to be not the exception, but the rule.