Without deliberate exposure to other cultures, it is difficult to fully understand inequality.
Jehad Halawani, a second-year PhD student at George Mason University, became acutely aware of educational inequality when she began teaching high school physics in her home country of Palestine, where infrastructure is lacking and resources are scarce.
While the lack of funding is understandable because Palestine is under occupation, Halawani said, the lack of teacher training and mentoring led to limits on learning. She struggled to ensure her students received the best education possible but regularly grappled with how to teach them critical consciousness (critical reflection, critical efficacy, and critical action) and self-directed learning.
“There was no teacher preparation prior to joining the faculty [in Palestine], and I had no training in general education pedagogy, classroom management skills or lesson plans,” she said.
Upon her family’s arrival in Virginia, Halawani taught physics in both Prince William and Fairfax County public schools. There was a stark difference in the Palestinian and U.S. approaches to education, though she said she found that the U.S. educational system has its own shortcomings. She quickly realized that if she wanted to learn more about program structures and grow as an educator, she needed to expand her own schooling.
She was attracted to the teacher preparation programs in Mason's School of Education, and once she completed her MEd in Curriculum and Instruction in 2018, she began looking for the right PhD program, which for her included a program with faculty who were inclusive, supportive and intellectually aligned. She also wanted to learn skills to help her conduct research and learn how to ask the right questions.
“The PhD journey can be lonely at times and having structures and people in place to support students and their beliefs was important for me,” she said. “I wasn’t just looking for funding or coursework—I was in search of an ideologically aligned place.”
Once accepted into the Learning Technologies Design Research program with a focus in International Education, Halawani was selected as a Graduate Inclusion and Access Scholar (GIA) with the Center for International Education, a highly competitive scholarship for first-generation college students from underrepresented populations within their doctoral field of study at Mason.
“Jehad has brought a unique background and perspective to both the PhD program and within her field,” said Associate Provost of Graduate Education Laurence Bray. “She sees herself as a citizen of the world and emulates inclusivity while teaching others about the importance of making a difference."
Halawani is also working as a graduate research assistant for Supriya Baily.
“The best relationships between an advisor and a student are ones that are built on a foundation of mutual respect, trust, support and encouragement,” Baily said. “She is fearless, both in articulating what she knows and being humble and curious what she doesn’t. This makes her a wonderful person to work with because she engages intellectually and compassionately.”
Halawani has expanded her collaboration skills through helping Baily with her upcoming book, as well as with conference planning, presenting, and research, in addition to her work on her own dissertation.
She believes that the best teaching practices include encouraging students to take initiatives in their learning while helping them develop a critical mind—allowing them to make adjustments that will better themselves. Jehad also believes two of the most important things that can make a difference in education are to teach students to think for themselves, and to allow them to fail.
“Any science person knows you can spend hours seeking one result if you even get it at all. Oftentimes we fail and need to restart, which is acceptable—but we don’t teach that in schools,” she said.
As she refines her research, Halawani said she is guided by an inner desire to discover how to make education equitable, accessible, and achievable for everyone.
“Displacement has allowed Palestinians to be more resilient and adaptive to change and as such, I think of myself as a global citizen,” she said. “Because of that, I’ve created my own path. I am a global citizen who will work with disadvantaged communities around the world and find ways to make learning better."