Meet Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz: Professor, Researcher, and MentorFebruary 20, 2009
I first entered the teaching profession through Teach for America in 2001. During my preliminary training and teaching of fifth grade summer school in the Bronx, I witnessed firsthand the educational achievement gap — cockroach-infested drinking fountains, fifth graders reading at a first grade level —and came to more fully understand the role I could play in fighting against it. My experience in the Bronx and the subsequent two years I spent teaching in San Jose, California, shaped my life dreams and ambitions. Because of these experiences, I felt an affinity toward 2004–05 American Fellow Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, who has dedicated her life to researching and combating the nation’s educational achievement gap.
Yolanda always knew she would pursue a doctoral degree. Her dissertation analyzed how mothers’ decisions to return to school affected their families, and, more specifically, the influence this decision had on the mother-daughter relationship. Yolanda found that “the mothers saw the pursuit of higher education as a way to cope with the pressures of life, overcome obstacles, be a role model for their children, and fulfill a lifelong dream.” Consequently, some of the daughters in the study were influenced to enroll in school, following in their mothers’ footsteps.
Expressing the important influence AAUW had on her own pursuit of higher education, Yolanda said, “AAUW believed in me when no one else did. The fellowship boosted my confidence in my work. AAUW also gave me access to an amazing network of women who are intelligent, accomplished, and kind. It’s like a sisterhood for me — a sisterhood that is vested in my intellectual development and career success.”
Since completing her degree, Yolanda has taken a faculty position at her graduate alma mater, Teacher’s College at Columbia University, where she feels her unique position as a black woman in academia allows her to help other young women. Yolanda has mentored many young women who have gone on to enroll in college or complete their master’s or doctorate degrees. She knows that some people spend a lifetime reaching for an opportunity to teach at a place like Teacher’s College, and she is grateful for a chance to give back to the place that helped shape her teaching philosophy and career.
Yolanda’s journey from working in managerial positions at The New York Times, Business Week, and New York University to teaching at Teacher’s College has not always been easy. “I have been in situations where I’ve had to fight to be heard. … When you are relatively young and black and female, some people try to dismiss your ideas.” Because of these experiences, teaching, researching, and scholarship about the intersections of race, culture, and education are important to her.
Over the past few years Yolanda has conducted several workshops about culturally responsive education, a type of work she foresees in her future. Recently Yolanda was invited to give the keynote address at the Excellence and Equity in Education Conference. Her speech, entitled “Rigor, Relevance, Relationships: The Substance of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy,” received a standing ovation from the 950 people present.
As Yolanda continues to break through barriers for education equity, she provides those of us who are pursuing higher education with sound advice: “Go for it! The degree signals that you’ve worked hard for something and you made it — that regardless of the obstacles, you were able to persevere and follow your dreams. We all should be dreamkeepers. All of us. “