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School & District Management Opinion

I’m a Researcher. Here’s What Happened When I Traded Activism for Social Science

Finding my voice as a public scholar didn’t happen overnight
By Roberto G. Gonzales — January 15, 2019 3 min read
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On Sept. 5, 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a policy providing temporary protections to undocumented immigrants who arrived in this country as children. In the wake of the announcement, many wondered how these young people would navigate post-DACA lives. I had been studying DACA and its impacts on young adult beneficiaries since the program’s inception and had generated a significant amount of relevant data.

Over the next several months, I spent much of my time responding to inquiries about the program’s termination and what it would mean for the young beneficiaries and their families. During that September alone, I spoke to 31 reporters. In the months that followed, I provided expert testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote declarations for legal actions, penned op-eds, and advised my university’s administration. I briefed elected officials, foundation officers, university presidents, school leaders, teachers, counselors, and social workers. For nearly a year, my academic productivity slowed down significantly. But my studies and my ideas were centrally shaping the public debate.

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Education Week Commentary teamed up with Frederick M. Hess to ask four accomplished scholars a simple question: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten on how to be a public scholar?

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I am now at the stage of my career where I am comfortable being a public scholar. I have been very fortunate to find diverse outlets for my work, and my research has provided me an evidence base that is sought after by a varied group of national and local actors—policymakers, community and school leaders, and practitioners. But in my early years in academia I struggled to find my voice as a public scholar.

In my early years in academia I struggled to find my voice as a public scholar."

Prior to my academic career, I was a youth organizer in an immigrant community in Chicago. In that role, I lived in the neighborhood, and I was embedded in community life. That experience fundamentally shaped my political orientation.

After more than a decade in Chicago, I made a difficult decision to trade activism for training as a social scientist. The early years of graduate school were challenging, as I reoriented myself to engage the world around me from the perch of a scholar. As I worked to find my voice in academia, my field research placed me in communities, schools, and social spaces of young people who lacked citizenship—environments not too different from my community in Chicago. Meanwhile, the circumstances of undocumented young people were increasingly made worse by policy, an observation I had empirical evidence to support.

But I worried that I was not doing it right. I was putting my training into practice and growing as a scholar. Yet I still felt a strong inclination to advocate for my respondents and those like them.

I needed advice. I scheduled an appointment with my adviser, Rubén Rumbaut, an internationally renowned expert on immigration. He had been researching immigrant communities for several decades and was a central figure in American sociology. If anyone could set me right, it was he.

I confessed to him that I was having difficulty maintaining an objective distance, that I was affected by what I felt was an injustice, and I wanted to fix it. I expected him to lecture me on the need to avoid these kinds of traps. His reply was an emphatic: “Good!”

He explained to me that these trajectories need not be mutually exclusive. Doing good scholarship and having a public voice could go hand-in-hand. The key to this, he told me, was to produce methodologically rigorous, theoretically compelling, and empirically driven work that met the highest standards of the discipline. If I could do this, I would have a solid foundation from which to establish myself as an expert and leverage my expertise to inform the public debate.

Rubén’s advice and validation buoyed my efforts through graduate school and served as a guide for how I would conduct myself as a scholar. It has also shaped my career and influenced how I mentor younger scholars. While I remain critical of policies that negatively impact immigrant students, I now have a body of work that allows me to respond expertly.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Making of a Public Scholar

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