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Feb. 28, 2018

Terah Venzant Chambers: Rooted in reform

Feb. 28. 2018

Terah Venzant Chambers is an associate professor of K-12 educational administration in the College of Education.

Growing up in a predominantly white suburb outside St. Paul, Minnesota, I struggled to fit in as a smart, Black girl. In all of my thirteen years of K-12 schooling, I never once had a teacher of color. In high school, I don’t recall there ever being another Black student in my advanced classes. I attended excellent public schools and had wonderful friends, but I could never shake the feeling that I did not quite belong.

After getting accepted to Carleton College, an elite college outside the Twin Cities, a sense of Imposter Syndrome set in. Sitting among my classmates at the opening convocation ceremony, I felt like a fraud. Irrational thoughts that my admission was somehow a mistake would haunt me.

Although I worked hard in my classes and never received a grade lower than a B-, I was plagued by the feeling that I didn’t belong. I found myself changing majors and, eventually, universities, transferring in my second year to the University of Minnesota. I felt like a complete failure.

My trajectory started to turn around after a mentor encouraged me to pursue graduate work in educational policy studies at the University of Illinois, where, for the first time, I was surrounded by students and faculty of color, many of whom did research on the historical legacies of educational inequities. My experience at Illinois was a salve to my psyche, and I soon turned my sights to better understanding how education policy worked at the federal level.

Winning a fellowship with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and educational institute associated with the Congressional Black Caucus, afforded me the opportunity to work in the office of the Honorable Diane E. Watson, a former school teacher and member of the House Education and Workforce Committee. While I didn’t know it at the time, this experience would further change the course of my life.

It was an auspicious time to be working on education in D.C. – President Bush had just unveiled his plan for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with a plan he called No Child Left Behind. Congress was abuzz with conversations about how best to meet the needs of schoolchildren in the United States.

I accepted an opportunity to extend my time in Washington by working in the U.S. Department of Education in the Office for Civil Rights, which was another deeply transformative experience.

I learned a great deal working for Congress and the DOE, but there were also surprises. While I expected to be completely put off by Washington politics, I did meet a strong cadre of people who were fighting, however futile those efforts might have been, to positively impact the educational experiences of all children.  

My experience in Washington solidified my fate. I returned to graduate school with a fire to make connections between researchers, policymakers and the larger community. I also realized there would be another benefit in becoming a professor: I could be the person I wish my younger self had seen – a Black woman who persevered to achieve success, despite the challenges of being underrepresented.

Fifteen years have passed since I first went to Washington, but that same fire fuels my work today. My research focuses on K-12 urban educational leadership and post-Brown v. Board of Education K-12 educational policy.

The core of my work lifts up the experiences of high achieving students of color, identifies the challenges they overcome to attain that success (what I call "racial opportunity cost") and develops strategies schools can employ to make academic success less costly for minoritized students.

I am driven by the question of what good am I doing in the world? Faced with so much turmoil in the news, I feel compelled to do whatever I can in my local community as a way of giving back.