Mitchell Parry: Building a voice in the community

Originally from Loudoun County, Virginia, Mitchell Parry earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Richmond with a double major in psychology and English. His interest in education and development grew, resulting in a master’s degree in applied developmental science from the University of Virginia. His interests then expanded to educational policy, leading him to the VCU School of Education, where he is now pursuing his Ph.D. in Education, Concentration in Educational Leadership, Policy and Justice.

Headshot of Mitchell Parry, VCU School of Education student.
Mitchell Parry, VCU SOE doctoral student. (Courtesy photo)

What inspired you to be an educator?

I have to credit those professors of mine who guided me toward education and eventually, toward policy. People too often take for granted how education can improve broad aspects of society, while also providing individuals the capacity to think for themselves. Education may not have become the “great equalizer” for students, but by impacting education policy, I can help get us get there.

What has your research experience been like so far?

I’ve had great experiences with the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC), a center affiliated with SOE. I began working on a list evaluation project in fall 2019 with Dr. Jesse Senechal and Dr. Melissa Cuba. It deals with a behavioral intervention program for children who have emotional behavioral needs, and it’s shown me how special education departments and local counties can work together.

I'm also involved in the longitudinal evaluation of Code RVA Regional High School with Dr. Amy Corning, learning how a magnet school functions, especially when it's tied to a county and focused on something like computer science.

Lastly, I'm involved with the Equitable Access and Support for Advanced Coursework Study, which looks at how to best expand access to advanced coursework to promote equity in all MERC regions. It has made me realize even more that we need to think about how to dismantle systems that marginalize students of color and low socioeconomic status, so that everyone has access to advanced coursework and a quality education.

What do you like most about your program so far?

I like the opportunity to take what I’ve learned about development, and apply it to social justice in a way that directly impacts educators. You develop a very close and rewarding dynamic with educators in the field once you know what they need, and the payoff is when you provide them with information that improves education as a whole.

Why was SOE the right fit? “Dr. Siegel-Hawley told me about VCU’s educational leadership, policy and justice program, how interdisciplinary it is, and how it’s driven toward social justice. That’s what brought me to VCU ...”

How does VCU SOE support you in your career goals?

I would like to work with a school research consortium like MERC in the future, or with a research group that advocates for students such as the Guttmacher Institute.

The connections that SOE professors have with organizations in the community are helpful not only for getting your foot in the door, but for informing you how to create a profile that will allow you to work for them – or to advocate for them – in the future. It gives you a voice in the community.

Doing research with MERC also takes you out in the field, a component that’s lacking at many other schools. Other universities may partner with one or two schools in a district, but only to do interviews. They don’t necessarily change any systems. In contrast, MERC’s teacher retention study, which looked at the disproportionate discipline of black students, provided real advice and meaningful information to school districts as a way to drive change toward more equitable learning.

Tell me more about your research interests.

I took part in family life education as an adolescent in Northern Virginia. Over time, I’ve realized that I don’t remember much from that experience. That led me to look into the politics of sex education – how it functions at the federal, state and local level. I found that students are seldom asked what they think they need to learn at that age – especially students who are marginalized by the most popular form of sex education: abstinence. Adolescents who have already had sex before taking family life education are stigmatized almost to the point of victimization.

For my dissertation, I’m studying how LGBTQ+ students, especially those of color, are impacted by sex education curriculum that they either don’t receive at all, or that stigmatizes them because abstinence education does not talk about sexuality or gender identity. Marriage is promoted over everything; proper contraception isn’t even mentioned in many cases.

Some states even push an anti-LGBTQ approach on their students, stigmatizing them even further and leading to more victimization and bullying outside of the classroom and in their own neighborhoods.

I want to talk to those students and find out what their needs are, and then give their feedback to the General Assembly when they're considering education legislation and standards in the next calendar year.

Why was VCU SOE the right fit for you?

When I finished my master’s program at U.Va., I knew I wanted to go into policy. My advisor there knew Dr. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley from when she was an undergrad there, and put me in touch with her. Dr. Siegel-Hawley told me about VCU’s educational leadership, policy and justice program, how interdisciplinary it is, and how it’s driven toward social justice. That’s what brought me to VCU – the idea that I could take what I had learned from my undergraduate and master’s experience, build on it, and use it to drive policy change.

Any tips for students who are considering study in your program?

First, you don't have to be perfect at everything you do. Considering my own educational experience, if I pushed to be absolutely perfect in my academic courses, then other projects that are more impactful might end up faltering because I'm too focused on school. Projects where I can help education more broadly – like those for MERC – are more important than trying to get straight A's. If you apply for a job, the interviewer isn’t necessarily going to look at your dissertation and say “You’re hired!” However, they will pay attention to how passionate you are about your field.

Second, definitely reach out to everyone else in your program, not just full-time students. Approximately half of the students in my program now are part-time students who can feel more isolated because they're not on the same schedule as everyone. Building those connections can help create a sense of community for you and everyone else in the program. It will push everyone together toward finishing the program and being successful.