Class of 2022: Emma Otremba


Emma is from Pierz, Minnesota, and is graduating with a master’s degree in Educational Psychology-Applied Developmental Science.

What inspired you to choose a career in education?

I went into college thinking I wanted to study political science, and quickly learned that it wasn’t a good fit for me. Then I found the youth studies department.

I started taking classes exploring things like family dynamics that helped me understand myself and my experiences as a teenager. It was really impactful for me. I put a lot of pressure on myself in high school to get the perfect grades and do everything right. The atmosphere in college was much more reflective and relaxed. I was able to explore my own gender and sexuality. I was getting good grades because I enjoyed the classes, not because it determined my self-worth.

Being able to understand my own identity, and knowing that kids in schools often don't have that time or space to explore identity, I fell in love with learning about youth activism and thinking about, how do we change the climate of a school? How do we help kids explore identity in high school?

Also during undergrad, I was a McNair Scholar with the Ronald E. McNair postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, a federal program for first-generation and low-income or underrepresented students. That’s how I got started thinking about doing a master’s program.

Why did you choose the UVA School of Education & Human Development for your program of study?

I had UVA on my mind because of the specific work that was happening here. I was drawn to UVA because of professor Nancy Deutsch, all the work with Youth-Nex, and the Youth Action Lab, which is an entire lab about YPAR (Youth-led Participatory Action Research) that I’ve been able to work with during my time here. That’s exactly what I wanted to work on.

What kinds of research experiences have you had during the program?

I’ve been able to participate in a ton of different research projects. Some of it through courses, and some of it through my internships.

In my History of American Education course, I did research on the history of GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances) in schools that I just presented at the Hunter Student Research Conference. In one example from 1995, a school banned all school clubs instead of allowing a GSA, and that was really shocking to me. It was amazing to uncover that story and I hope to continue working on that research. Dr. Derrick Alridge was really great with helping me with that.

For my internship, I worked with the Youth Action Lab at Lugo-McGinness Academy, an alternative high school here in Charlottesville.

We asked the students about what they wanted to change at their school, and the topic they chose was their school lunch. So we did a field trip to a cooking class, and we talked with the chef about what it means to run a kitchen and cook food for a group of people. We explored the history and the cultural significance of food, especially for Black communities. The students created a solution where they learned to cook food for each other and their community. It’s been really fun. The most exciting thing was when we had a student show up for our morning class, and that was the first time she had ever taken the morning bus.

The biggest thing I appreciate with YPAR is that a lot of times people expect researchers to go in and say, ‘this is what you need to do to succeed.’ But the students picked the topic, it was their idea to cook food themselves, they were doing research. We were just there to support them. Just being there and building the relationships – I'm really thankful that I was able to do that. There’s a James Comer quote I was taught in undergrad that I still love: “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

What is one thing you learned during your studies that surprised you most?

Over this time of being in a master's program, I’ve learned that I can do this. That was kind of shocking for me. Sitting here almost at graduation, it’s kind of cheesy to say, but I just can't believe I’ve come this far. But I did the work, and I deserve to be here. Students like me deserve to be in these spaces, especially at a school like UVA. I’m incredibly grateful.

What will you be doing next?

I’m going to be working to get my Master of Library Science. I was accepted at Indiana University Bloomington as a Sarah Reed scholar.

A lot of the research I’ve done here, especially with the GSA project, sparked an interest in library and archival work. At a library, it’s all about who has access to knowledge. I want to continue with that social justice framework and explore how library work can intersect with youth activism and youth research.