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MEITE Newsletter: Alum Spotlight: Samantha Cullum ’19

Portrait of MEITE alum Samantha Cullum

In this MEITE Minutes Alum Spotlight, we are highlighting MEITE alum Samantha Cullum (’19 MEITE)! Please enjoy the dialogue below: A conversation between Aliyah Benton, MEITE program advisor, and Samantha. Thank you for joining us, Samantha!

Aliyah: Let’s start with you sharing about yourself, professionally and your educational background, and anything else.

Samantha: I grew up in northern Massachusetts. I went to school in Boston for my undergrad, my undergrad degree is in marine biology and math, so not in education at all. But while I was an undergrad, I was able to work as an informal marine science educator. I worked at a marine science center, running field trips, running summer camps, doing classroom outreach with the local schools, and kind of hanging out with marine critters every day. I really enjoyed it, and that experience opened my eyes to realizing that I did not want to be in a lab. I wanted to work with people and specifically in an education capacity.

After that, I worked for a year as a nanny. I was looking for master’s programs in education that did not include a certification because I knew I did not want to work in a traditional classroom or in that capacity, and that is when I stumbled across the MEITE program. After the program, I worked for a year in Washington, D.C., as an instructional design consultant for a large government consulting company. I did not know my job was going to be as important until March 2020. I worked in a group that focused on education technology. We were a bunch of instructional designers that did work on stand-up training, eLearning, and different education technologies in that aspect. We were very uniquely qualified to help our clients move all their classes to online and then to deal with some of the issues that they were seeing in their learning management system.

At that time, I applied to graduate school again. So now, I am currently a Ph.D. student in education policy. I am currently working at a research-practice partnership, the Policy Center, where we work with the Michigan Department of Education to do some implementation work. So, we’re looking at evaluating some of the programs that they implement in the state. Currently, we’re surveying teachers who are from the lowest-performing schools in Michigan and seeing how the state implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act has affected them.

Aliyah: What did you like most about the MEITE program?

Samantha: I really enjoyed the classes and especially the depth and the breadth of the classes that we were taking. I also really enjoyed my cohort members because they are very diverse and being able to talk about our different interests in our seminars. Learning from my classmates, learning from classmates who were in other classes that were different from mine, talking with classmates who were in the same classes, kind of discussing our different projects, what was going on, and then being able to interact as a group on specifically education, technology, and different innovations.

Aliyah: How has completing the MEITE program aided in your success so far?

Samantha: Giving me a good skill set to go out on the job market with. That was one thing that I got feedback from during interviewing. She said she had never seen a program like mine! She also stated that the skills I learned focusing on technology and looking at how people learn within it was a skill set that uniquely qualified me for doing in instructional design, and especially in a changing world where we are focusing more on online courses. For example, a lot of professional development for different businesses is moving online. And as we can see, even for traditional schooling, they are moving toward online instruction, and I do not mean just for COVID, but also a lot of districts and states are thinking about what it is going to look like after COVID, and maybe online schooling is not a bad idea or maybe there are some aspects of this that they could implement after COVID in a way that it’s not under duress. And so, people are kind of learning to cope with these technologies.

Also, the program inspired me and showed me how hard it is to get education technology into schools and the struggle it is to talk to stakeholders, and especially when those stakeholders are policymakers who may not understand these activation technologies.

Aliyah: Could you talk a little bit more in-depth about the work that you are doing now, more about the project that you mentioned, or other projects you are working on. And I would really love to learn more about your Ph.D. program.

Samantha: I knew my general interest in getting technology to schools, and specifically, the equity around who gets to use technology. This was the pathway that I felt like I could make a difference and continue the change in education that I wanted to see. I was looking for a strong program with quantitative methods. I have a data analysis background from my undergrad career. Then, I did some analysis and learning analytics and focused my thesis on the data that professors have access to from a learning management system. Coming out of a thesis program helped to center the research that I wanted to pursue in my Ph.D. program.

I am a first-year [student]. So, what that means is, I am taking all the foundational courses and have not had all that much time to work on my own research. I’m just trying to fit as much knowledge into my brain as possible! I am working with my advisor, starting this summer to focus my research a little bit going into my second year, to really hit the ground running when I start having the time and the autonomy to be able to work on my own projects. I focus on three areas, on accountability policies, so looking at the Every Student Succeeds Act and the No Child Left Behind Act. That is the project I am working on now.

The second thread that I am focusing on is data-driven decision-making. How teachers and administrators use data to inform their classroom policy, data-driven decision-making, and evidence-based on policy is super vague. Coming from the U.S. Department of Education at the federal level, and a lot of states, you know, they will give autonomy down to local districts, but put the caveat that their interventions and what they do is based on evidence.

The project I’m working on now, we are looking at what’s called the partnership program in Michigan, where, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, every state has to have targeted interventions to their bottom 5% of schools by state testing. This is known as school turnaround policy, and Michigan created one where they essentially pushed the decision-making back to the districts.

Aliyah: What advice would you give to current and incoming MEITE students?

Samantha: I think the advice I would give is to ask all the questions and to take everything in because being able to be in a program like this, surrounded by people with such diverse backgrounds, with professors from all different places, not just in the School of Education, but in different schools at UNC. Being able to talk to these industry leaders, talk to folks who are doing education technology, and the Triangle area is something that you are just not going to get again. Asking all the questions that come to mind, emailing people to ask questions, after you have talked to them, and just really trying to take everything in. You can then make use of all that knowledge and then combine it with your own. So, whenever you are listening to people talk, whenever you are in class, whenever you’re at a workshop or any sort of visit, picture yourself in what they’re talking about. Picture your own context, picture your own ideas, and see how it fits with other people. And I am not saying to fit with other people. I am saying, put it in context with other people, so you can understand where you are in this whole large world of technology.

Aliyah: Since the pandemic and quarantine started, what are some hobbies or things that you did around the house?

Samantha: I started going on COVID walks to get outside. I would be very intentional as I was walking, looking at my surroundings, looking at nature, and understanding how the feeling as I am walking. I also started playing weekly board games online with a group of friends. It is nice just having an hour and a half every Sunday where I know that I am not going to be thinking about classwork or thinking about work. I am in my house but participating in a group activity has been great!