Gwen Baxley was a high school student in a Jersey City charter school when she first discovered the messy reality of public school funding.
Her favorite teacher had left for a job at another charter school in Newark. And when she visited him there, Baxley was surprised at what she saw.
“There was a level of engagement and support he was getting at his new school that really made me envious,” said Baxley, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. “It made me want to understand: ‘Why were there these differences between the way I was educated and the resources I received, and what the students in his school received.”
Baxley, who graduates May 19 with a degree in psychology, and minors in education and English, has continued to seek answers to that question, and others related to public schools, throughout her academic career. Indeed, she has made it a central piece of her undergraduate research at Rutgers.
Her research projects – conducted in the Aresty, McNair, and SAS honors programs, and as a summer intern at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – examined a number of serious educational policy issues, from the influence of charter schools on ELL (English Language Learners) achievement, to the linkage between teacher satisfaction, teaching experience, and perceptions of school climate.
Baxley said her research has helped prepare her for post-graduation. She wants to obtain her doctorate in education and work toward a career as a researcher or policy analyst. Her ultimate goal is to achieve policy reform that would help ease the sharp inequities between public school districts.
She recently accepted admission to the doctoral program in educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“When I first came to college, I thought I would become a teacher or a principal and then return to my high school and fix all the problems there,” said Baxley, who will be the first in her family to graduate college. “But I eventually decided I wanted to focus more on root causes of those problems. I want to do things on a grander level and have a bigger impact.”
Whatever career path she chooses, Baxley has already had a considerable impact at Rutgers - even beyond her education research. During her undergraduate years, she has reached people as a poet, mentor, and all-around volunteer.
As a sophomore, Baxley began organizing poetry slam workshops in Jersey City, partly as a response to state budget cuts that threatened extracurricular activities. She also served as a mentor for Rutgers Future Scholars, and participated in an Alternative Winter Break in Clarksdale Miss., in which she examined the history, culture, and educational inequity of Mississippi, and helped out in an elementary school.
Like her academic work, Baxley’s volunteerism has a common theme: a deep-seated desire to help underserved communities.
“I love working with students and teachers because it provides me with a real life perspective,” she said. “That perspective combined with the research can help us fully understand the issues and how we can start making an impact.”
At SAS, Baxley said the wide spectrum of programs enabled her to find just the right combination of majors and minors. The education minor, she said, gave her the background on the issues, while the English minor helped her communicate those issues in creative and effective ways. She chose psychology as her major to better understand the underserved community as a whole.
“There is a self-defeating culture in some communities where people feel almost like they can’t do much and that they are to blame for the inequities,” she said. “You need psychology to understand people’s mindset.”