Combining her passions for independent education, diversity and leadership, Virginia DeWees ’16 is conducting Honors research on the climate of diversity in independent schools in the United States. During winter break, she interviewed 35 individuals connected to independent schools and is now working toward compiling her data into a final thesis.
“Having the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in an area of study that I have such passion for has been more fun than challenging,” says DeWees. “Although it is an extensive amount of work, my passion for research makes it worthwhile and the ‘ah-hah’ moments while writing are so incredibly rewarding and invigorating.”
Under the guidance of Professor of Education Jamie MaKinster, DeWees is exploring the question of how educational leaders of independent schools in America value and attain diversity in institutions that are “historically socially and racially homogenous.” Her research focuses on a range of schools, from traditional college preparatory schools to boarding schools, progressive schools, and Quaker schools.
To supplement her literary research, DeWees travelled to five states on the East Coast to conduct interviews with heads of schools, administrators, teachers, and students at independent schools. To broaden her scope, she also conducted a phone interview with an independent school on the West Coast.
She says the interviews helped her gauge a sense of her participants’ social identities, their own perspectives of diversity at their schools, the ways in which diversity is valued and respected, and their perspective of their head of school and his or her role in diversity efforts.
DeWees discovered that the majority of schools she visited were on an “upward trend to fostering a more diverse population,” while also creating a more culturally fluent and relevant community environment. To implement the changes, many schools have hired diversity coordinators and implemented policies to help prevent discrimination.
“Virginia was able to see some amazing examples of schools that not only say they value diversity, but that have worked to achieve diversity on a number of different levels,” says MaKinster, who calls DeWees’ thesis both “personal and academic.” By connecting her interview experience to what she’s learned on campus, MaKinster says the project is leading DeWees to “further her own understanding about herself and the world.”
“Doing an Honors project has been among the most transformative and invaluable experiences during my undergraduate tenure,” says DeWees. “And working with Professor MaKinster has been one of the most dynamic and motivating relationships I have had with a professor at this school.”
A double major in writing and rhetoric and an individual major in educational leadership, DeWees also directs the Leadership League of Women, a women’s empowerment and leadership development program between the Laurel Society of William Smith and the female-identifying students at Geneva High School.
DeWees plans to pursue a career in teaching and eventually further her studies in a Ph.D. program.