African American Alumni Committee (AAAC) Founders Scholarship Fund Recipient
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Ashley Cureton, AM ’10, PhD ’19, began her master’s degree at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice -- with an interest in social justice, education, and anthropology and the desire to earn a doctorate, but without knowing the research path she wanted to pursue.
Now as a post-doctoral fellow and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Cureton studies the educational and mental health needs of migrant and refugee children and families, both in the U.S. and abroad. She credits her master’s and doctoral program at the Crown Family School for providing opportunity and support to explore and define her interests. “That’s one thing I will say about the School: I had a lot of mentors,” she said. “They helped shape me as a young scholar.”
Cureton had planned to enroll immediately in the doctoral program after college, but the Crown Family School faculty encouraged her to pursue the master’s degree first. “They thought I needed more research experience under my belt,” she said. “I think they made the right call.” She found the Crown Family School’s international social work and community schools program of study sequences a good match for her interests. The former, “gave me a broader perspective on some of the work I could do abroad as a social worker,” she said, while her community schools courses “allowed me to see some of the challenges that schools [serving low-income students] were facing.”
One community schools requirement included a year-long internship at a high school in Chicago’s South Side, where many of the afterschool programs she helped plan were canceled due to community violence. “It was sad and disappointing, to say the least,” she recalled. But the experience solidified her interest in working with schools, families, and community partners on ways to combat inequality and better serve marginalized youth.
Outside the program, Cureton continued exploring. One summer she taught reading and writing at a summer camp on Chicago’s South Side; during another, she taught elementary school in Lima, Peru. “Every spring or summer break I did something,” she said. “I was never dormant. I was always active. Those experiences were critical in helping me figure out what to study.”
Following her master’s program, Cureton pursued other opportunities that would later inform her research career: a 10-week fellowship with an attendance and truancy initiative in Chicago Public Schools, followed by three years as a full-time research associate at Northwestern University where she helped launch and study another truancy prevention program in Chicago.
In between, she taught Syrian and Iraqi refugees at an elementary school in Turkey as a fellow with the U.S. Department of State. That fellowship would become the inspiration for her three-article dissertation that analyzes the experiences of Muslim refugee parents and youth with public schools, including barriers to parental involvement, student engagement in learning, and young people’s participation in out-of-school-time activities. The first of the three articles was published last year in The Urban Review, while two more are under review.
Cureton describes the mentorship and methods training she received as a doctoral student at SSA particularly from Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor Sydney Hans, Associate Professors Gina Miranda Samuels and Waldo E. Johnson. Jr., and Charles Payne, (now Professor Emeritus) — as “incredible” and crucial to her dissertation’s success: “I became a better writer, and a better qualitative researcher.”
Faculty have noted her commitment to advancing a more just and humane society. “Ashley worked hard to hone her thinking and writing skills, but her success as a social work researcher also comes from her exceptional focus, energy, and passion for improving the lives of refugee youth,” says professor Hans.
At the University of Chicago, she was also able to serve as a teaching assistant for Susan Gzesh, Senior Lecturer in the College, and former Faculty Director of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, who became yet another mentor. “She helped me incorporate a human rights framework into my research,” said Cureton. “Being able to serve as a TA to her was extremely critical to my identity as a scholar.”
During her doctoral years, Cureton continued to make good use of her summers. During one, she enrolled in a program on refugee law at Oxford University, with funding from the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights. During another, encouraged by a Northwestern University faculty mentor, she served as a graduate intern for the United Nations Refugee Agency in Geneva, Switzerland and learned about the role of humanitarian organizations in addressing the global refugee crisis.
Her longer route to a doctorate with its variety of experiences has made her more effective as an academic, Cureton believes. In the classroom, she’s able to draw on “real-life” examples that bridge theory and practice for her students. With practitioners, her experience lends her research greater credibility. “Especially for people who are working with migrant and refugee populations,” she explained, “it makes it easier for me to propose certain interventions or programs if I’ve actually worked with those groups.”
In August 2021, Cureton will transition to a tenure track position at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. "That's exciting," she said.