Meet Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz: Professor, Researcher, and Mentor

February 20, 2009
Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz: Professor, Researcher, and Mentor

Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz: Professor, Researcher, and Mentor

I first entered the teaching profession through Teach for America in 2001. During my preliminary training and teaching of fifth grade summer school in the Bronx, I witnessed firsthand the educational achievement gap — cockroach-infested drinking fountains, fifth graders reading at a first grade level —and came to more fully understand the role I could play in fighting against it. My experience in the Bronx and the subsequent two years I spent teaching in San Jose, California, shaped my life dreams and ambitions. Because of these experiences, I felt an affinity toward 2004–05 American Fellow Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, who has dedicated her life to researching and combating the nation’s educational achievement gap.

Yolanda always knew she would pursue a doctoral degree. Her dissertation analyzed how mothers’ decisions to return to school affected their families, and, more specifically, the influence this decision had on the mother-daughter relationship. Yolanda found that “the mothers saw the pursuit of higher education as a way to cope with the pressures of life, overcome obstacles, be a role model for their children, and fulfill a lifelong dream.” Consequently, some of the daughters in the study were influenced to enroll in school, following in their mothers’ footsteps.

Expressing the important influence AAUW had on her own pursuit of higher education, Yolanda said, “AAUW believed in me when no one else did. The fellowship boosted my confidence in my work. AAUW also gave me access to an amazing network of women who are intelligent, accomplished, and kind. It’s like a sisterhood for me — a sisterhood that is vested in my intellectual development and career success.”

2004–05 American Fellow Yolanda Sealey-RuizSince completing her degree, Yolanda has taken a faculty position at her graduate alma mater, Teacher’s College at Columbia University, where she feels her unique position as a black woman in academia allows her to help other young women. Yolanda has mentored many young women who have gone on to enroll in college or complete their master’s or doctorate degrees. She knows that some people spend a lifetime reaching for an opportunity to teach at a place like Teacher’s College, and she is grateful for a chance to give back to the place that helped shape her teaching philosophy and career.

Yolanda’s journey from working in managerial positions at The New York Times, Business Week, and New York University to teaching at Teacher’s College has not always been easy. “I have been in situations where I’ve had to fight to be heard. … When you are relatively young and black and female, some people try to dismiss your ideas.” Because of these experiences, teaching, researching, and scholarship about the intersections of race, culture, and education are important to her.

Over the past few years Yolanda has conducted several workshops about culturally responsive education, a type of work she foresees in her future. Recently Yolanda was invited to give the keynote address at the Excellence and Equity in Education Conference. Her speech, entitled “Rigor, Relevance, Relationships: The Substance of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy,” received a standing ovation from the 950 people present.

As Yolanda continues to break through barriers for education equity, she provides those of us who are pursuing higher education with sound advice: “Go for it! The degree signals that you’ve worked hard for something and you made it — that regardless of the obstacles, you were able to persevere and follow your dreams. We all should be dreamkeepers. All of us. “


  1. JesseAlred says:

    I am seeking a dialogue with current and past Teach for America teachers. I have taught for 14 years in inner-city Houston. When I started teaching, I saw myself as a reformer, as some of Teach for America teachers do. I had some pretty serious success with AP students, and some serious frustration with our regular students. So my experience, to be honest, has been mixed. I want a dialogue about the political behaviors of the Teach For America elite.

    In our city, a former TFA official, now a school board member, has led the charge for beginning to fire teachers based on student test scores. She also opposed allowing teachers to select a single major union representative. After a little research I found this appeared to be a pattern with TFA”s leaders. There seems to be a close relationship between conservatives and the TFA elite.

    This goes back to its origins, when Union Carbide sponsored Wendy Kopp’s original efforts to create Teach For America. A few years before, Union Carbide’s negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything it could to avoid and minimize responsibility after the event.

    A few years later, when TFA faced severe financial difficulties, Ms. Kopp wrote in her book she nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved by their financial assistance. The Edison Project, founded by a Tennessee entrepreneur, was an effort to replace public schools with corporate schools. Two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, then joined the Bush’s at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This was vital to Bush, since as Governor he did not really have any genuine education achievements, and he was trying to prove he was a different kind of Republican. I then read the popular magazine articles about Michelle Rhee’s firing of teachers and closing of schools, and then her admission she had gone to far too fast.

    I think you do great work. Ironically, my former mentor works for Ms. Rhee. He saved me in my first year as a teacher in Houston. He was a terrific teacher. I respect and honor your work, as I do my own.

    But your leaders seem to attack the public sector and blame teachers for student failure in order to curry favor with rich conservatives. To be up front, I grew up in a low-income housing project in Mississippi and eventually became a good student, and I am a social democrat. I believe school reform must include better schools, but also health care, stable employment, long-term unemployment benefits, a revitalized union movement, a higher minimum wage, freedom for alternative lifestyles, and affirmative action. Stable families are more able to be ambitious for their kids than economically or emotionally unstable families. Better schools are part of this, but only one part of it. Your leaders seem to have gotten in bed with people who believe the market solves all issues—and that makes the money flow faster. Yet your hard work gives them credibility with the media.

    Ms. Kopp claims to be in the tradition of the civil rights movement, but Martin Luther King would take principled positions—against the Vietnam War and for the Poor Peoples March—even if they alienated powerful people. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here. My e-mail is

  2. Gloria says:

    We need more Yolanda’s if we are ever going to close the gap in achievement equity. AAUW fellowship funds were definitely well spent in supporting such a hard working and inspiring woman. Keep up the good work Yolanda. I am one of those sisters struggling with the decision about returning to school to get my doctorate one day–and you’ve given me a boost.

    Wish I could have heard that speech!

  3. Amanda Petersen says:

    What an amazing woman. I love this series. It’s like a straight up dose of inspiration every week!

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