Portia Newman: ‘Everything I want – all in one place’

Portia Newman, student in SOE's Ph.D. in Education with a concentration in Educational Leadership, Policy and Justice.
Portia Newman

Portia Newman was born in Wilson, North Carolina. The first in her family to attend college, Newman earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is pursuing her Ph.D. in Education with a concentration in Educational Leadership, Policy and Justice at the VCU School of Education.

What drew you to the field of education?

Like many of my friends, I started college with the idea that I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, not necessarily a teacher. In my sophomore year, I began to think more seriously about what I’d like to do. I knew I loved kids, and I really liked school. My advisor asked me if I had ever considered being a teacher. I told him I had not, so he told me to talk to a couple of people, and to not come back to him until I had really considered teaching as a profession.

Before returning to him, I decided to take a survey to see what my professional interests were. The results were clear: I should teach. My advisor agreed and told me he thought I’d love it. I applied to UNC’s School of Education and got into their Child Development and Family Studies program. My advisor was right, of course I loved it! I enjoyed working with students and families, and thinking deeply about the possibilities that come from quality education.

When you decided to pursue your doctoral degree, what made you choose VCU SOE?

VCU SOE’s Educational Leadership, Policy and Justice program is a beautiful combination of three things that I care deeply about: leadership, education policy and justice. Education – particularly getting education right – is a revolutionary act of justice. All of the components of the program are necessary and critical in order to understand how leaders can innovatively enact change. This program allows me to combine my interest in diversity, equity and inclusion, with my leadership and learning practice. In short, it’s everything I want – all in one place.

Any tips for incoming students?

First, talk to students already in your program. We’re very willing to connect with anyone who’s interested. The Educational Leadership, Policy and Justice program, for example, welcomes people from several different backgrounds – higher education, social work and school administration, to name a few. It’s interesting to hear from students with varied backgrounds and experiences how they approach educational leadership, policy and justice. Early conversations provide great insight into where your career can take you after graduation.

"VCU has such a direct connection to Richmond; getting to know more about both is a critical part of the learning experience."

Second, take the time to visit Richmond several times before starting your program. I visited Richmond only once before moving here from New Orleans. Multiple visits will not only help you learn more about the city, they will give you valuable time to learn more about the campus support services available to you, and where they’re located. VCU has such a direct connection to Richmond; getting to know more about both is a critical part of the learning experience.

Any highlights from your most recent semester?

The first highlight was finding the right people to support my development. For example, I worked very closely with Sergio Chaparro, the behavioral and social sciences research librarian for graduate students in the James Branch Cabell Library. He works primarily with the School of Education and the Department of Psychology and Addiction Studies. He’s amazing! He has been a great resource throughout my coursework.

The second highlight would be creating communities. Early in the semester, I felt distant and wondered where I fit in. I wanted to connect with other doctoral students who shared similar experiences and identities, which is why I joined SOE’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. It’s been an excellent avenue for me to connect with students and faculty. There are lots of opportunities here to create space within those types of communities.

The third highlight would be my graduate assistantship. I manage all of the graduate school professional development programs. With that I serve as the program coordinator of a new program called RAM Opportunity within the VCU Graduate School, which matches high school students in Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico public schools with graduate researchers here at VCU. It’s been interesting to see all the opportunities that VCU offers its graduate students. Leadership and mentoring are important to me, and it’s become an integral part of my on-campus learning experience.

Learn more about Newman’s role in RAM Opportunity in this VCU News article.