During the day, Mai Vang ’18, ’22 manages relationships with University of Redlands prospective students and applicants. After receiving her MBA from the School of Business, she decided to pursue a doctoral degree from the School of Education, where she is researching a topic that is particularly relevant to her own life—the experiences of mothers of color in graduate school. Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with Vang about her dissertation and what she has learned from her studies.
Bulldog Blog: Tell me about your journey into the School of Education. What made you decide to pursue an Ed.D. degree?
Mai Vang ’18, ’22: I conducted undergraduate research as an apparel, merchandising, and management student at California Polytechnic University, Pomona with the McNair Scholars Program, which originally exposed me to doctoral studies. I knew then that I wanted to get an advanced degree but was unsure of what exactly after graduating. When I found a position at the University of Redlands and received my MBA from the U of R, I started to think about studying higher education. Immediately after graduating with my MBA, I enrolled in the Ed.D. program because my family was already in a routine—there were certain nights when I had class where I already had childcare and I just didn't want to stop the rhythm. Because if I stopped, I knew I wouldn't be able to finish. Now I’m in my third year and am working on my dissertation, which focuses on mothers of color in graduate school.
BB: You work as a customer relationship management (CRM) operations manager in the U of R Admissions Department. What do you do in that role?
Vang: I manage the CRM systems, which are sets of robust software that allow us to manage our applicant data. We communicate with prospective students and applicants until they enroll at the University. I helped build the system for Graduate and Professional Enrollment and work across all of the schools—the College of Arts and Sciences, Graduate School of Theology, School of Business, and School of Education.
BB: What led you to focus on mothers of color in graduate school for your dissertation?
Vang: Being a mother of color in graduate school myself, I noticed there wasn't much research conducted on women of color, and, when it does exist, it’s always through the lens of a deficit framework. In my research, I will operationalize Shaun Harper’s anti-deficit framework which looks at a student’s educational journey—life before college, influences, mentors, programs; any support, services, or resources they received during college; and factors that influenced them to go to graduate school and obtain a degree.
I wanted to look at the assets that allow mothers to pursue graduate school, which is an anti-deficit perspective. Where do they find institutional support? What do they do if it’s lacking? In my case, I'm an Asian American woman in an educational justice and leadership program. Looking for a mentor with the same ethnicity as me is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I wanted to see what other women have done in order to succeed, whether that is through peer mentorship in their cohort, faculty mentorship, or something else. This perspective reveals a counter-story to what we see in the mainstream.
BB: How do your identities as a woman of color, a mother, a first-generation doctoral student, and a University employee influence your life as a doctoral student?
Vang: It’s definitely constrained, especially during the pandemic. I’m at the computer from 7:30 in the morning to 10 at night on the days that I have class. It’s a lot of time-management among work obligations, helping with homework, doing my own schoolwork, and family obligations. I have to be intentional with my time so that I can juggle it all.
BB: What has been the most challenging aspect of your program?
Vang: The most challenging aspect, as a first-generation doctoral student, is the number of things I didn’t know when I entered the program. If I could do it all over, I would like to have a dissertation committee member in mind ahead of time and prioritize faculty of color. The time constraints are another challenge, especially with a family. If I have a 20-page paper due, I have to schedule my work weeks in advance because I need to break it up. As an undergrad, I could probably whip out a 10-page paper overnight. But now that I work full-time, go to school part-time, and am a mom doing distance learning with the kiddos—it’s a lot to manage.
BB: What has been the most rewarding?
Vang: I think the most rewarding aspects have been learning the foundation of critical race theory and finding companionship with other people in my cohort. Critical race theory evolved from legal studies and provides an alternative perspective that questions what “the norm” was in the past. Legal scholars examined legislation that was passed and the racism that was embedded in it. It presents another perspective that prioritizes data and takes the perspectives of people of color into account. Critical race theory asks: Who is the writer? Who are they writing for? And why?
Additionally, I have a very diverse cohort. It's split in half—half of us work in higher education and the other half work in K- 12 education. When we have discussions in class, we get a full spectrum of ideas. We can identify trends and changes in real-time. Looking at the history that I was taught and how it's changing has stretched me mentally and emotionally. The program has changed me and challenged me in many ways.
BB: What is your hope for the future of education?
Vang: My hope for the future is to create more equitable processes in higher education administration. I'm a process person, so I look at something, see where it's broken, and I fix it. When we look at educational justice and leadership, a lot of things we're seeing are results of systemic racism and structures. Through my program, I've learned that those things can't change overnight—it takes gradual steps. My hope is to do my part in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and make education more socially just for everyone.
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