Sean McDonald, a doctoral student working on his third degree from the University of Virginia, has always been ambitious. He credits his parents and his older sister for instilling a drive to succeed and inspiring him to always set his sights high.
But ambition without passion, he said, will only take you so far. When McDonald was an undergraduate at UVA pursuing a future in law, his mom got sick, and he faced several personal challenges that prompted him to pause and reflect on what he truly wanted to do with his life – not just what he felt he “should” do to find success. One thing stood out.
“When I looked back at some of my greatest most inspirational moments as a child, a teacher was always around,” he said.
McDonald changed course. He earned his Master of Teaching degree from UVA in 2014 and, with a fellowship from African American Teaching Fellows, jumped straight into the teaching workforce with Charlottesville City Schools.
There, he found his passion.
For the next several years, McDonald worked in elementary, middle, and high school, in a range of different positions – history, civics, special education, economics, even instructional coaching.
While he loved working directly with students, the breadth of his classroom experience helped him see larger issues within the field. “I think I had the rare vantage point to see common themes across school districts, across classrooms, across settings,” he said. One of those themes: that students of color who also have disabilities often weren’t getting the support they needed.
When working with these students in the classroom, “I didn’t know how to help them the way I wanted to,” he said. Looking to his fellow teachers or administrators for advice or resources, he found lots of commiseration – yes, this population has unique challenges – but not many actionable solutions. That wasn’t good enough for McDonald.
“I wanted a way to study these issues that I cared about and that I saw in my classroom,” he said. “I felt that education research would give me an avenue to look at those problems through a much more complex lens, and to have the time and space to do that well.”
Three years into his doctoral program, McDonald’s research focuses on adolescent literacy supports for learners in special education. He’s particularly interested in the intersection of race and disability and approaches for supporting culturally and linguistically diverse students.
The ultimate dream: to create a literacy learning lab for minoritized students.
McDonald’s advisor, Michael Kennedy, first met McDonald as a master’s student. “Even at that early moment, he stood out as someone that I knew would do very important things in our field,” he said.
Kennedy describes him as grounded, driven by his desire to serve the community and students with disabilities and other challenges. That focus, combined with his broad teaching experience, has allowed him to pull insights from multiple areas of research together.
“He’s thought really creatively about marginalized students who have substantial need, but also substantial opportunity to grow,” Kennedy said. “He sees that opportunity, and he’s going to bring new ideas that are doable to help support their outcomes.”
From the beginning, McDonald said, he was adamant about pursuing research that would allow him to give back to the classroom setting in a direct and practical way, with research-based interventions that are simple and easy for teachers to implement. He may have stepped out of the classroom, but he approaches his research with the mindset of a teacher and a deep understanding of the challenges and hurdles that they face.
The highlights of his UVA experience, McDonald said, are all about community – the faculty, classmates, and peers he has connected with through conferences and other opportunities in the program. “The people I’ve been able to meet and intellectually spar with and debate and philosophize with have been amazing,” he said.
He is particularly grateful for Kennedy's guidance. McDonald said his advisor’s consistent advice and encouragement empowered him to be a rising scholar in his field and go after the topics he cares about.
Ultimately, McDonald said, he wouldn’t be here if he couldn’t pursue research that is deeply meaningful to him. “As a Black male in special education research, I’m very hyper aware of the rarity of the type of interests that I have and bring to the forefront.” When asked his advice for aspiring doctoral students, he had one simple message: do the research that reflects your passions.
“There’s no easy win,” he said. “Everything is a marathon. But at UVA I’m in the process of building my research identity and carving out my vision for who I want to be.”