Ph.D. Candidate Profile: Hunter Holt

By Laura Hoxworth

As a Dean's Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in Social Foundations, Hunter Holt wants to become a historian of education and help ensure that all students have equal access to a quality education.

As a kid growing up in a working class family in Franklin, Tennessee, Hunter Holt developed a love of education at an early age – a love that has fueled his career goals and become a core part of his identity. Now, as a first-year doc student working toward his Ph.D. in Social Foundations, he wants to become a historian of education and help make sure that all students have equal access to quality learning opportunities.

Hunter said he was confronted with the realities of educational inequality for the first time while studying English at the University of Alabama. A first-generation college student himself, he started volunteering to mentor students at a local elementary school. The experience opened his eyes to how broad social issues such as poverty and race affect educational contexts.

“It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that the education that everyone gets in this country is not the same,” he said. “And I kind of realized that the public schools I went to as a kid were heavily influenced by the wealth that was moving into the town that I grew up in.”

His interest piqued, Hunter started studying education from a critical perspective, adding a minor in Educational Studies. He went on to earn a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction through the Mississippi Teacher Corps, a small teacher certification program based out of the University of Mississippi. Members of the teacher corps commit to teaching full-time in high-needs schools for two years while completing a master’s degree.

For three years, Hunter taught chemistry, biology and physics to high school students. He describes the experience as both valuable and challenging. He was able to build his pedagogy knowledge and classroom management skills, while gaining first-hand experience with the challenges faced by teachers in high-need schools.

“It’s a lot harder than anyone can ever explain it to be,” he said. “It’s just an all-consuming thing where there’s never a moment that you don’t have something to work on. Especially when you’re in a high-needs school, there’s a lot of other problems that are affecting the school and the community and your students. There’s just a lot you have to be aware of and sensitive to in order to do your job well.”

Eventually, Hunter felt the pull to continue his own education. While he enjoyed building relationships with his students, he felt frustrated by the larger, systemic issues that he saw affecting his classroom. After five years working as a teacher and an administrator with the Mississippi Teacher Corps, he began looking for an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program. Specifically, one where he could study education from a broad historical perspective, examining its relationships to government, law, and society – while also exploring practical solutions to make school systems more equitable.

When he found the Social Foundations program at the Curry School, Hunter said he was immediately drawn to Professor Derrick Alridge’s research — particularly the Teachers in the Movement project, which archives interviews with educators from the civil rights era. He also appreciated that the program is small and supportive, allowing him to work closely with faculty like Alridge, who is now his adviser.

“We get a lot of time working with the professors and our advisers,” he said. "Right now we meet with Dr. Alridge once a week for an independent study course, and he is very focused on making sure that at the end of this experience there are job opportunities for us, that our time here is goal-oriented, and that we're trained to be scholars in the field." 

Although his time at the Curry School is just beginning, Hunter is optimistic about the opportunities to build his research skills, learn from a diverse community of scholars, and eventually pursue his own research interests. Drawing from his experiences teaching in Alabama and Mississippi, Hunter is interested in exploring rural education, school segregation, and how history can inform current education movements – all toward the goal of making education more equitable.

“I feel like we all kind of have an obligation to reflect on how the less privileged in our society are treated,” he said. “So that’s a huge motivation — documenting how much of the inequality children experience isn't accidental, and thinking through what can be done about that."