Woman with hand on her face smiling

ASU doctoral grad seeks to improve education for marginalized students

By

Marshall Terrill

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Dawn Demps always knew she was going to be a teacher.

At 9 years old, she gathered up younger kids from her neighborhood in Flint, Michigan, cutting peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and doling them out on her front porch.

Next month she’ll be doling out scholarly expertise as a college professor at another university. But not before she collects her PhD in education policy and evaluation from Arizona State University on May 3.

Demps, who once dropped out of high school, is a first-generation college student and a single mother. She's also the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Outstanding Graduate student this semester.

“It was a tremendous amount of work and it took a lot of focus to complete my education,” said Demps, who is the mother of three children ranging in ages from 8 to 18. “There were a lot of things in my personal life that could have been barriers but weren’t because of the support I received at ASU, my family and family and friends back in Flint.”

Her dissertation research focuses on an organization of Black mothers in Arizona and explores their strategies of resistance to the exclusion of Black children in schools. Demps is also the recipient of a completion fellowship from ASU’s Graduate College and the American Association of University Women Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

After Demps graduates, she is moving to Tucson, where she will become an assistant professor for the educational leadership and policy program in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice in the College of Education at the University of Arizona.

ASU Now spoke with Demps about receiving her doctorate and the next chapter of her life.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study teaching?

Answer: I always knew I wanted to be involved in education. Once I got into college and became exposed to political science and sociology, things like that, I shifted slightly towards wanting to study how school systems work or don’t work and how to make education better for all students. As a high school dropout and first-gen college student, I knew all too well the ways that the educational system shortchanges its most marginalized students. So, I would not say it was a singular moment. I feel like my current trajectory is the culmination of all my life experiences and lessons.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU?

A: I came in with a youth programming and community organizing background. While at ASU, my mentors helped me see how I could pour my experiential knowledge into my research, then use my research in service of the communities I work with. I can’t speak highly enough of my committee and the other mentors I have had while here. I would say that was another thing I learned — how to be a good and supportive mentor, especially in the academy.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Well, I investigated coming here initially because a lot of my family had moved to the Phoenix area from Flint, Michigan – my brothers, my sister and my mother were all either here or in Los Angeles. So, when I began investigating my PhD options, I of course looked here first. Then the weather doesn’t hurt. But, in terms of the substantive qualities of the school, I liked the scholars that I saw doing some groundbreaking work in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Especially some of the critical work they were doing around historically disenfranchised populations and community and youth voice. I was additionally attracted to the fact that ASU had a School of Social Transformation, as my MA was in social justice studies. So, to be able to merge education and social transformation in my program was very appealing to me. Additionally, the scholars here were very receptive when I reached out to them to speak about the program before I applied. All PhD programs are not like that. I believe that was the thing that let me know ASU would be the place for me. I didn’t apply to multiple PhD programs, like most people are advised to do. ASU was the only school I applied for because it was the only one I wanted to attend.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: When I first came here, I was very overwhelmed by what I perceived other grad students were accomplishing. How I believed they knew things that I did not, or they were further ahead or publishing more or on more research teams. And as a single mother of three kids, I always felt like I was so far behind and could never catch up because there are more important things that I can’t trade my time in for. In the end, I learned that you have to run your own race. Don’t be intimidated by what you believe others are doing. Just do what you need to do well. Another piece of connected advice would be to make sure you have a tight team of support around you. They will keep it real with you and support you in the ways you need to be supported. I believe my committee to be absolutely wonderful scholars in their own right. But I chose each of my committee members because I believe they were genuinely invested in my success. That is way more valuable than having prestigious, nationally renowned people on your committee who aren’t readily available to you and cheering and guiding you along the way.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?

A: I absolutely loved Engrained Café. The food was delicious. I could enjoy noshing and studying inside or outside, and I liked the ambience and endless coffee. It was also a good spot to people watch. That is the ethnographer in me!

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be an assistant professor for the educational leadership and policy program in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice in the College of Education at the University of Arizona. I am very excited to be making the move down the road to Tucson.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I am pretty sure $40 million is not enough to change the hearts and minds of people — and that is what we need to actually solve any problem. I believe we already have the resources at our beck and call to make any of the real changes we seek in the world, no matter the concern. That money would just fund some short-term program or treatment for a very limited time. It may yield impressive results and then fall to the wayside as interest wanes or the intervention crumbles under political pressure. What we need is an ethically informed commitment to totally transform the way we approach justice, equity and humanity. Especially in education. Unfortunately, too many are invested in the status quo, or fear what change could mean to them. So, Band-Aid remedies will continue to be funded under the guise of progress, only to slide back to business as usual. I am not sure any amount of money can remedy that. But, as community members, advocates and scholars, we must keep doing the work of presenting the evidence and convincing. I think that is our main job as scholars.

Top photo: Dawn Demps is an outstanding graduate of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College for spring 2021. She is receiving her PhD for her work in educational policy and evaluation. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News