Isobel Forsyth, originally from Kingston Upon Thames, UK, earned her M.Ed. in Educational Psychology - Social Foundations in 2020 and is currently working as a teaching fellow at St. Anne's Belfield School in Charlottesville. Here, she shares why she chose to study Social Foundations and how she's using her degree to build a career in education.
Why did you decide to apply to the Social Foundations program at UVA? What were you hoping to gain from the program?
After finishing my undergraduate degree at UVA, I knew I wanted to pursue further studies in the education field. Still, I was unsure if I wanted to go into teaching, or higher education, or an administrative degree, or go down an educational policy route. The Social Foundations program offered me a broad program where I was able to gain skills in a lot of different areas. Research method classes gave me practical experience in carrying out research and analyzing data. Discussion-based courses across various disciplines allowed me to look at education research from all kinds of different lenses. Psychology classes meant that I could expand my content knowledge of human development and learning and understand scholarly and academic articles and research. The program targeted knowledge about schools and how they function, including content knowledge about K-12 and higher ed, and looking at the interrelationships between education, society, and other social institutions.
What was your experience like? Is there something that was particularly impactful during your time in the program?
One of the most beneficial things from the program was the confidence I gained. Due to Social Foundations' smaller-sized classes and the close connections I was able to make with faculty, I quickly became comfortable participating in class discussions, whether they were an online discussion forum or in a classroom.
The professors' friendliness and approachability, particularly their desire to work with you and do everything they could to help and support you and your work – for you to get everything you wanted out of their course – was what I found to be the most impactful. As a student who had struggled during my undergraduate program with writing skills, I was apprehensive about taking on a master's program. But I soon knew that the Social Foundations program was the right choice, and I came out of the program with far improved writing skills and confidence in academic discussions.
A particularly impactful class was EDLF 5700: Race, Ethnicity and Diversity in Education with Joanna Lee Williams, Ph.D. This class taught me so much; our discussions were rich and highly impactful. Our readings were thought-provoking, and our writing assignments were reflective and provocative. I would never have been ready for any education position without having taken this class with Professor Williams.
Was there a particular staff or faculty member who played a significant role in your educational experience?
Professor Joshua Brown taught my Sociology of Education class in my first semester of the Social Foundations program. Our class had only a few students, but it was undoubtedly my favorite class of the entire program. Our discussions were often long and sometimes heated. Professor Brown was the perfect moderator; he made sure to keep us on task, ensuring we understood that week's readings and seeing the topic from all angles – acknowledging the complexities of so many sociology issues in education. In addition to our class time, his feedback on our written work throughout the semester was invaluable. He offered guided feedback that helped me think about what improvements I could make for myself, rather than just telling me what to do. It helped me develop critical thinking skills that I was able to take forward into other courses. I am forever thankful for his help and guidance throughout our time together.
Is there anything that surprised you about your experience – something you didn’t expect?
I didn't expect to feel comfortable in a graduate-level course so quickly. It was always a fear that I wouldn't keep up or adjust to the new level of coursework. However, the faculty prompt you from the beginning to keep healthy habits for learning and studying. In addition to this, I wasn't sure what to expect when it came to sharing viewpoints on education in classes. Still, the faculty and fellow students welcomed everyone from the outset with all our different perspectives. I was very quickly able to feel comfortable participating and voicing my opinions and concerns around my peers.
What do you think makes the Social Foundations program unique from other education degrees?
In your classes, you get students from a lot of different programs. They might be pursuing their teaching degree and qualifications, be a Ph.D. student, be in a clinical psychology program, etc. This helped to get a lot of perspectives in each class and discussion. In addition to this, I liked how broad it was. The combination of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and policy studies enabled us to examine education from many different lenses and the intersections among them all.
Has what you learned in the program helped you in your current position so far? If so, how?
It has helped in my position in many ways. I can use psychology and developmental knowledge to best help and support the students I work with, particularly during these unprecedented times. The writing and academic skills have helped me in essential communication throughout my current job; besides, because I am now much more familiar with and confident at data, I am quickly able to analyze student data, summarize trends and look at ways to improve academic outcomes.In addition to this, I can use my theoretical knowledge and critical thinking skills to work to help the school operate under this year's extenuating circumstances. For example, I was able to help teachers and departments brainstorm ways to make the library accessible and allow students to work from home while also having students in the classroom.
How do you envision applying what you learned in the program in the rest of your career?
For my next position in education, I would like to take on a role that incorporates even more of my social foundations of education knowledge. I plan to put my understanding of education in society, social disadvantage and issues of educational inequality to use throughout my career.