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Dena Simmons

Educator & Activist

New York, NY

Working within a broken system set up to fail some students and not others frustrated me.

When I accepted a Harry S. Truman Scholarship — a graduate school scholarship for college juniors who show leadership potential and have an interest in government or public sector service — I also accepted the fact that I would need to enroll in graduate school within four years of my college graduation (the maximum scholarship deferral period). As a college junior, four years seemed like a long time. However, when those four years were up, I found myself conflicted, having to decide between staying in the classroom and pursuing graduate school.

The thought of leaving the classroom made me feel as if I were giving up a part of myself. I was born to be an educator. I have always wanted to improve the education of students, especially students of color from impoverished neighborhoods like the one in which I grew up in the Bronx, New York. At the same time, the classroom felt limiting. Working within a broken system set up to fail some students and not others frustrated me. On top of that, teacher voices are often excluded when making education policy. That said, despite being intimidated by graduate school, it offered me an opportunity not only to learn how to be an effective public servant on a larger scale, but also to become a visible, respected, and included voice in education policy.

As I agonized over my decision, I considered teaching part-time and enrolling full-time in graduate school simultaneously. However, the budget cuts made a part-time teaching position unlikely. Ultimately, I decided to pursue a doctorate degree in Health Education at Columbia University, Teachers College. I wanted to learn how to address social injustice by understanding better the relationship between health, education, and academic and life outcomes.

I am now in my fourth year of my doctoral studies. My research is focused on assessing teacher preparedness to handle bullying situations, as schools should be safe havens for all. Sadly, current education reform efforts focus mainly on improving student achievement, which is important, but they often leave out interventions that address student social, emotional, and physical well-being.  Ensuring school safety and addressing the health of students are crucial to student academic success.

In my tenure as a student, I have won a prestigious Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship, led professional development sessions for teachers, and been recognized for my teaching and activism in a Beacon Press book, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and in the AOL/PBS MAKERS project, a dynamic interactive, digital experience highlighting women movers and shakers. I also teach teachers, lead youth workshops on activism and social justice, and write about and present my research to diverse audiences. Although I am not in the classroom (but hope to return one day), I am still an educator; I still impact students and educators. I have learned that following my heart and not limiting myself to what I know and what I do well led me to discover strengths within myself that I did not know existed.