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A Distinguished Professor

American University promotes SOE's Dr. Vivian Vasquez to Distinguished Professor

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SOE Distinguished Professor Dr. Vivian Vasquez

School of Education Professor Vivian Vasquez was recently promoted to the rank of Distinguished Professor by American University’s Provost Office, which states that the advancement “honors eminent AU faculty whose scholarship has earned national and international renown” and “shaped their field or a significant sub-field through path-breaking original scholarship.”

Vasquez’s academic trajectory led to a specialized knowledge in literacy teaching. She earned a doctorate in education - with early childhood education as a supporting area of emphasis - from Indiana University, a master’s degree in literacy education from Mount Saint Vincent University, and bachelor’s degrees in special ed, primary ed, and reading; primary and junior education; and psychology and exceptionality in human learning.

She had taught courses at Indiana University, Mount Saint Vincent University, and York University; received certifications as a Primary Education Specialist, Teaching Reading Specialist, and Special Education Specialist; and taught P-12 students for over a decade prior to joining AU’s School of Education, Teaching, and Health (now the School of Education [SOE]) faculty as an assistant professor in 1999. She has since been held in the highest regard by her students and colleagues.

“Dr. Vasquez is a highly respected and valued faculty member that SOE and AU, broadly, call upon for the most significant needs,” said SOE Dean Dr. Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy. “She is passionate about everything she does, takes risks for what is important to her, and constantly illustrates her commitment to education justice. I believe she embodies the kind of stellar scholarship and the ‘changemaker’ mindset that we envision being a Distinguished Professor at American University.”

Congratulations, Dr. Vasquez, on your promotion to Distinguished Professor. The School of Education is quite proud of you and views you as an immensely deserving recipient of such an honor. What does this achievement mean to you, and how could it facilitate the attainment of any career goals you would like to accomplish?

The honor of being promoted to Distinguished Professor comes at a very interesting time in my career, my twenty-fifth year at AU and my forty-first year as an educator. It is a promotion that I never imagined for myself. I am so grateful to those with whom I have crossed paths that contributed in some way to my promotion, beginning with Dean Holcomb-McCoy, who gave me the space to dream, imagine, and do what I believe needed to be done. There are too many people to thank here, but I think they all know who they are. 

In terms of what being a distinguished professor makes possible – I hope it allows me to continue doing what I am doing, to be conscious and mindful of both the stable and shifting positions from which I speak, and live my academic life in a way that allows me to contribute in some way to making the world a more socially just and equitable place while maintaining a sense of humanity, humility, and love. 

You have been an integral part of our Teacher Pipeline Project (TPP) with your valuable input as the founding director of one of its principal programs, the Child Development Associate (CDA) program. Could you discuss some of the program’s attributes and why its existence is essential to the TPP? 

Families of young children need access to early childhood settings, with effective, professionally credentialed teachers, to support their children’s growth and development. The addition of the CDA to the SOE’s TPP created a space for us to contribute to building a strong workforce of adults who care, teach, nurture and advance diverse children’s development from birth by providing ECE (early childhood education) educators and potential ECE educators with a seamless articulation of academic pathways to learning.

Our CDA program is unique in that it is a fully online, asynchronous, self-paced program framed from a culturally sustaining and anti-racist perspective. It has provided opportunities for students who did not previously have access to higher education. A large majority of these students are people of color. To make our program accessible to students, we seek out grants that allow us to offer partial or full scholarships. Seventy-eight percent of our 210 CDA students who have benefitted from scholarships are Black or Latinx women. This is important to note, given studies such as those released by the Learning Policy Institute and other research groups that have reiterated the severe shortage of qualified and credentialed Black teachers across the United States. 

Advancing their career path beginning with completing a CDA has the potential to elevate not only their lives but those of their families, which in turn contributes to elevating the communities in which they live.

In your celebrated professional career as both a teacher and author, you are known for brilliantly championing the establishment of resources that conduce literacy. Given your vast experience in this area, what do you believe are some of the main hinderances of literacy today? What could educators do to turn the tables?

I imagine that hindrances are dependent on one’s life space, what one believes one can and can’t do, the context in which one works, and so forth. Global realities have effects that are felt directly or indirectly in children’s homes and classrooms impacting their living and learning. As teachers, we have the power to elevate the narratives of those living in times of trauma to help children of all ages create better tomorrows for us all. 

The Swampy Cree, a division of the Cree Nation, has a saying “To say the name is to begin the story.” This reminds us that to exist humanly is to name the world to change it. Once named, the world reappears as a problem that requires a new naming. The power to name one’s world breaks the silence. With silence broken, we can step into action. For me, this happens with critical literacy being central to my theoretical toolkit for disrupting inequities, using the language and literacy tools to which I have access. I believe this work in engaging critically with the world is needed now more than ever. Engaging critically is about actively interrogating, unpacking, making sense of, and re-framing, words, images, and other presentations of ideas and thoughts.

We also need to work from an understanding that no text is ever neutral, including books, magazines, movies, songs, posters, ads, and so forth. If no text is neutral, it means that all texts are socially constructed and created by individuals and groups for particular reasons and particular purposes with the intent of impacting readers in some way. Since texts are socially constructed, it means they can be unpacked and deconstructed and then re-constructed in ways that make the text more socially just. When we re-construct texts, we seek alternate narratives and counternarratives to develop a deeper, broader, and more informed understanding of the topic or issue under study. Central to this work is asking critical questions. 

This critical work needs to be centered on students' passions and interests. It needs to be responsive, embedded in our everyday teaching, contextualized, participatory, fluid, and evolving. It should be a transformative way to engage an active citizenry; a way of reading the word and the world. This critical work should not be teacher-centered, an add-on to the existing curriculum, isolated, one-size-fits-all, linear, finding the one right answer, taking a single source as truth, acceptance of text without question, or indoctrination of beliefs or ideas.

So, clearly, there continues to be work that needs to be done and the time is now to get working.

In your opinion, what have been some of the salient advancements and challenges in how children are educated today? 

I have experienced many shifts, twists, and turns, in educational policies and practice. Now, more than ever, we have knowledge of theoretical pedagogies - including culturally sustaining and antiracist perspectives, arts integration, media literacy and technology - that allow us to best support the needs of diverse learners.

One problem lies in making that knowledge accessible to those interested in becoming teachers, especially people of color. This is one of the reasons we created the child development program as an asynchronous, online, self-paced program of studies. Students in the program can work in a place and space that makes sense for them and within a time frame that supports their current life situation.

Another problem is the micro-managing and control by policymakers, and those external to the classroom, of what teachers should teach and how to teach those things. We know that learners learn best when what they are learning has importance in their lives. Who can best determine that? Teachers, their students, and the children’s families, not policymakers or those external to the classroom.

You are a great repository of educational knowledge. Could you share any message that could inspire today’s teachers and burgeoning teachers?

I once saw an interview with a well-known author who was asked how they decided on what to make significant in their book. This author responded by saying nothing is significant until you make it significant. So, to today’s teachers, I say that you are significant and that you matter. It may not always feel that way, so find others with whom to think, laugh, cry, and celebrate, and with whom to find ways to do the important work that needs to be done to teach in ways that honor the lives of the children you work with, and that highlights each child’s brilliance.

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