Cara Tratner ’12 grew up in the dorms of Stanford University where her dad taught English. Immersed in academia from the start, she did not begin to question her educational privilege until her freshman year at Wesleyan.
“As I became aware of the unequal patterns of access to education in the U.S.,” Tratner comments, “I looked back at my own schooling in a different light, starting to think critically about the level of segregation even in my own ‘good’ high school, and the way in which my success as a student was to a certain extent dependent on the failure of so many others.”
After this realization, Tratner began exploring alternative models of education and working with educational organizations seeking to reach those excluded from the type of education she grew up with. She taught in diverse settings ranging from Philadelphia public middle schools to Argentinian high schools to Connecticut prisons.
Yet Tratner shares that her experience in these teaching positions only complicated her understanding, leaving her wondering how and when educational structures actually benefit the communities they serve. “In my teaching experience I struggled to determine whether alternative educational practices were truly built out of the needs of those communities, or whether they functioned more to integrate individuals into a standardized educational paradigm,” she says.
As a 2012-13 Thomas J. Watson Fellow, sociology major Tratner will explore the topic “Overcoming Exclusion: Community-Based Educational Alternatives” in a year-long “wanderjahr.” Tratner is one of only 40 Watson Fellows selected to follow her passion in a self-designed project in countries outside the U.S. The fellowship comes with a $25,000 stipend. “The Watson is a way for me to learn about the work of educators who aim to empower marginalized communities to construct their own education,” she says.
Tratner will begin her wanderjahr in Peru, where 70 percent of Peruvian children who live isolated in Andean mountain communities do not complete more than five years of school. She’ll also explore and compare the work of educators in Guatemala, Ghana, Uganda and India who are developing culturally-relevant education programs for communities that have been left out of the formal education system.
Tratner will examine how cultural context influences the pedagogical methods of the educational response in each region. She’ll explore the diverse ways educators around the world are seeking to solve the problem of educational exclusion.
“The wanderjahr is a perfect opportunity for me to see first-hand the incredible variety of innovative initiatives around the world aiming to create a culturally-relevant education,” she says. “If I can discover how educators are able to empower entire communities to construct their own model of education, I hope that I too will be able to locate myself within a global educational community and work to construct my own path as I step forward into the world of education.”