As part of a storytelling series celebrating Black History Month, we welcomed our community members to share their stories to inspire others and encourage open, thought-provoking dialogue. Amber Fowler, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction whose focus is Early Childhood Education, sat down with us to share some of her story. Amber is a full-time student, mother of four children and was a kindergarten teacher before deciding to pursue her Ph.D.
Can you tell us about your research and area of study?
I am currently a part of a dynamic research team that is looking at children’s agency in about 10 classrooms across the nation, and I am working with a preschool in San Antonio. Within this research project, I plan to also look at teacher’s agency, education and professional development and the impact on student learning and agency. Outside of that research project, I am also interested in school closures in the city of Austin and their impact on the community.
Do you feel your interest area has been shaped, changed or influenced by current events, now or when you were younger?
I have always been a part of marginalized communities. I grew up in East Austin. The neighborhood and communities were predominately African American and Hispanic. Sadly, most of the neighborhood is unrecognizable because of gentrification. When I became a teacher, I spent five years teaching at a school in East Austin, a couple of blocks from where I grew up. We were slated for school closure each year and then in the final year we closed in the middle of the pandemic. Many of the schools that served Black and Brown students were on the closure list. The Chief Equity Officer announced that the closure of my school was “21st century racism” and the school district did not budge. I was also interested in the disparities of resources and the gaps between achievement amongst the 80 or more elementary schools in the district.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
To me Black History Month means empowerment. It means we are being seen and heard because at one point we were not considered real people. Black History Months means I get a chance to have the spotlight to show why Black history past and present need to be celebrated and highlighted all year. Black history means I made it, I am a voice for the people who did not get the opportunity to be in the space I am currently in. Black History Month is also a reminder of the path I am on and not to take it for granted because my ancestors died for me to be here.
In the past few years there have been many movements for change and changes made in the story of Black history. Are there any notable recent changes that you have noticed or really appreciated?
I like the movements such as BLM and SAY HER NAME, they are more than just hashtags to me. They give me the power within to think deeper than the surface of what it means to be Black. The movements also remind me of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. These movements make me work harder to teach people how special it is to be Black and that my skin color should never be a problem. Though the movements were created because of the killings of Black bodies, they are constant reminders of the power of unity and how we can come together and take a stand against injustice against our people. Here at UT, I am excited about the structural changes on campus. We are about to have a physical space that acknowledges The Precursors from 1956 who paved the way for Black students to attend UT. I think there needs to be a reminder for everyone that segregation is not ancient history. I think the space will encourage Black students to attend UT and our Black student and faculty population will increase.
What do you feel are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your academic or professional career, and what are some of your greatest accomplishments to date?
Some of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my academic and professional career is the feeling of belonging. I am a first-generation college student and ex-foster youth. I am usually great with transitions, but when I first started teaching, people did not even believe that I was the teacher in the classroom. Especially if there was a White teacher’s aide, they would approach her first. I would get asked if I was a real teacher at times as well. I can’t think of any reason other than because I was a young Black successful woman. I had to make my presence known and felt by building strong relationships with my students, which attracted others to wonder who I was.
In this academic space, the sense of not belonging derives from the lack of representations of Black students in my department. I am usually the only Black student in most of my classes. It’s been a joy having classes with Dr. Kefferlyn Brown and Dr. Natasha Strassfeld. Representation matters even in the Academy!
I learned about imposter syndrome and I have received encouragement from many people and I have continued to strive and create a safe space with my colleagues. Though it gets challenging at times I am working through it.
Some of my greatest accomplishments include being an author on a paper that will be published in a journal this spring (2023). There were times when I never thought my writing was good enough. Another accomplishment is receiving my master’s degree in December 2021 while working and parenting full-time. Lastly one of my greatest accomplishments is continuing this doctoral journey even on the toughest days, though I am not done yet, each semester is an accomplishment.
Was there anyone or any program that helped give you confidence or mentorship along the way? If so, tell us a little bit about that experience and what it meant to you.
There are many people who have helped me and given me confidence and mentorship along my journey. My family and closest friends keep me encouraged and all they know is that I am still in college and that I’m going to be a doctor but not a medical doctor. They are my biggest cheerleaders. Other than family, my mentor Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair. She is the only reason I am here. The first time I realized I wasn’t here by accident, is when I first started the master’s program. I jokingly said “I don’t even know how I got in” and she said you know we really read the essays and choose who gets in and we know who you are. I was shocked because I didn’t know the process. Since then, every time she calls me I get nervous because I never know what limb I am about to have to step out on. When deciding whether to apply to the doctoral program, she told me “Amber you are going to be a professor!” I looked behind me to see if there was another Amber. She believed in me at times when I didn’t even believe in myself. She has continued to push me and put me front and center during this academic journey. I am a part of a research team that is probably one of a kind. We are all women and mostly women of color. Though Dr. Adair is our leader, we are all in roles where there is no underlying power dynamic. I am blessed to have her as an advisor on this journey. This experience I am getting means the world to me.