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Researcher of the Month

December 2020

Grisell Ovalles

Major: History, Distributed Teacher and Leader Education program, Class of 2020

Research Mentor:  Dr. April Masten, Department of History 


Griselle OvallesGrisell Ovalles is a senior in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP/AIM), and the Distributed Teacher and Leader Education program (D-TALE) leading to New York State Certification for P-12 teaching and administration. When Grisell first became increasingly passionate about studying history as a junior, she was motivated to earn extra credit by going to History Department faculty lectures, or the History-URECA Symposium featuring history student talks, where she routinely encountered  Prof. April Masten, who would later become her course instructor for HIS301: Reading and Writing History- Women in 19th Century America, and would challenge her to write an honors thesis in History. Grisell recalls: “ This project was something I thought I couldn't do ... At first, a lot of it was scary for me. It was something that I just did not think I was capable of. So to finish it and to be able to speak about it, to have people who are interested in it—that  made me feel good… I'm actually very happy with the outcome!”

For her senior thesis, Grisell chose to write about the Latin American immigrant experience of education in the United States, a topic that synthesized her academic interests, and resonated with her as a Hispanic first-generation college student, and daughter of immigrants. Grisell received the History Department’s Alex and Zach Traum Research Award for Outstanding Research Paper for this work.

Grisell plans to be a secondary school history/global studies teacher following graduation (December '20); she is currently getting field experience as a student teacher, and enjoyed teaching history to 9th graders at Uncommon Charter Schools this past summer. She represents the student community as a College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Senator for USG/Undergraduate Student Government; and has served for over a year on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for SUNY Student Assembly. One of her main hobbies is sewing. Grisell is a graduate of Columbia Secondary School in NYC. Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director. 



The Interview:

Karen Tell me about your history senior thesis topic.

Grisell: The purpose of my study is to understand the unique experiences that Latin American immigrants experience in the United States. For immigrants, education can be the gatekeeper to success: immigrants often lack the connections, financial security, and educational support from parents that non-immigrant Americans enjoy. My project builds on interviews with Latin American immigrants living in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, The Bronx and Long Island. The interviewees I spoke with talk about their transitions from their country of origin, and about their relationships with parents, language acquisition and cultural differences. What I focus on specifically are: How are immigrants to fare in an education system that fails to mitigate significant barriers to learning—a system that sequesters and marginalizes immigrants as “other?” Why are these students deemed too difficult or time consuming to accommodate in the classroom? I examine how the isolation of immigrants lies at the heart of how the American education system has fundamentally failed immigrant students.

What got you interested in this topic?

I chose it because it just resonates with my life. I am a History major, and an Education major. So I chose to combine these two interests with my senior thesis. And I tried to put everything I was learning in every single one of my classes into this project. I'm also a Hispanic woman coming from immigrant parents. So I wanted to go deeper into this topic.

What was your process for doing this research?

Mostly interviews. At first I wasn’t sure exactly what direction I would be going into. But once I was several interviews in, I started to identify common themes or categories to map out and talk about. I asked the women I interviewed about their school experiences, their parents’ educational backgrounds and what it was like to learn the language once they got here. I also read scholarly articles about the push factors that brought these immigrant women into their new country. 

Were you focused on immigrants from a particular geographic region?

Most of the women I interviewed were from Central America - Honduras, Panama. I also interviewed a few from the Dominican Republic.

What was the most surprising thing you learned from these interviews?

I’d say it was learning about the lives that they had in their other countries, and how different their experiences were, particularly in schools. I noticed that the success of immigrants when they came to the United States would be very different depending on whether they went to a public or a private school in Latin America. How well the students could integrate, and how successful they could be in the US educational process, was more connected than I thought it would be, to having a had a previous private school background.

Any other conclusions that you came to from doing the research and the interviews?

I think that many more resources need to be put into ELL (English Language Learner) students. I don't think there are enough ELL teachers, and in general, I don't think that enough teachers understand what it's like for a child in the classroom who does not speak English.

Did you find any school initiatives that you thought were particularly helpful—models of best practice?

That's something that I am still exploring… What too often happens with bilingual students is that these kids are put into an isolation room, which can delay their progress. Something I've learned about children in general is that as long as they're pushed by their environment, they're going to learn whatever you want them to learn. Their minds are literally expanding, …But if you keep a Spanish-speaking student in a Spanish speaking room with Spanish speaking kids who have the same exact experiences as them, they will not grow as much as if they're made uncomfortable and put into an English room or have some sort of translator who can tell them the information in Spanish first, allow them to synthesize it, and then move into English. But there aren’t enough resources or teachers.

How has it helped you to do an honors thesis? What skills have you learned from working on an extended project?

This project was something I thought I couldn't do .. and I didn’t realize at first how much of my time the interviews (which I actually loved doing, because they were real conversations) were going to take. At first, a lot of it was scary for me. It was something that I just did not think I was capable of. So to finish it and to be able to speak about it, to have people who are interested in it—that  made me feel good. It allowed me to pull together everything that I’ve learned from my classes in both education and history..

Also, I noticed that I became more comfortable in the process of doing the interviews.  You have to not be afraid to divert from the questions that you planned out. Sometimes the conversation gets so engaging that you don't have to look at your notepad anymore. If you just speak to your interviewees, you'll get so much more out of the conversation.

It sounds like the project came together pretty well!

I'm actually very happy with the outcome.

What are your future goals?

 I want to be a teacher. I've been doing student teaching right now in a middle school. And I love it.  Teaching history is my goal. I love teaching 9th and 10th grade in particularly, because it’s focused on global history. I love to see people learn and I love to see people get excited to learn.

Has doing this project had an impact on your goals in terms of your own motivations for teaching ? 

I listened to a lot of my interviewees talk about what it was like in their old country, and it was just shocking to think about the hardships they faced. It is beyond me just to see their resiliency. There were a lot of stories that made me want to cry … Sometimes, you don't think about the things that your own parents went through if they don't talk about it so much.…so it made me appreciate the people around me, and appreciate the things that I have.

How has your mentor helped you with this project?

Professor April Masten is an amazing professor, who is super inspirational. She was very helpful throughout the whole entire process. I've learned so much from her. I took a writing class with her, and she really taught me how to write. She actually made me like writing! She would be that teacher that would keep asking,  “so what does that mean?” And you would edit your paper over, and over, and over again. She made me feel comfortable especially what the writing process and editing. As college students, we tend to rush things and then submit it, but she taught me the importance of reading over things, and editing.

Were there any other classes that you took that influenced you to write about education and the Latin American immigrant experience ?

I took two classes with Professor Eric Zolov (History Dept.), on Cuba and Latin America, which interested me and got me thinking in that direction. And then I had this class with Professor Georges Fouron (Africana Studies Dept.) which covered the foundations of education and why is it important, and that resonated with me.

What advice would you give to other students about taking on a senior thesis/ research project?

I would tell them to not worry about the outcome or what you're going to get out of it in terms of accolades. Just think about something that piques your curiosity and how deep you can go into that, and just do it. Think about the things you love. My sister is writing a research project right now. And I keep asking her, how would you explain it to someone? Why is it important to you? If you keep thinking of why that thing is important to you, you'll be able to do it. It’s going to happen.

When I was working on my project, it was important to me because I really do believe everyone needs an education and it brings choice when you have the knowledge to articulate yourself , or maneuver yourself in a society. It just gives you choice. That's why I think education is so important. I feel that my family and my household and my upbringing has been so important to me because it taught me that I need to work hard for things. …. that humbling experience is so important to get you to your success. And without it, your success is not really worth it.

Anything else you’d like to add ?

Yes , another piece of advice I would give to someone who's writing a paper is to remember that your professors are a big resource. So do speak to them. A lot of the time, they can help you with your research. As much as you reach out to them, they'll give you that hand. I’ve learned so much every step of the way at Stony Brook by learning how to do this, how to reach out.

When I first came to Stony Brook I was so shy, so unsure of myself. In my freshman year I didn't leave my dorm room, if I’m being completely honest. Something that had me very unsure in those first years was that I kept changing my focus. I would love something for a time and find joy in it, but nothing was sticking.…When I realized that I just like to learn, and then got into education, I really felt I was on the right path.

So when you first came to Stony Brook, you didn’t know you wanted to be a history and education major?

No, not at all!  I did what everyone else I knew was doing, health science. And I wasn't having a good experience; my grades were suffering because I was clearly did not engaged. When I had an SBC /Stony Brook Curriculum requirement to take, I just took the first thing that seemed  interesting to me, which happened to be a Latin America course, and that was it. From there, history became my main focus. I no longer had that support system of all my EOP friends who all seemed to be doing health science classes. But I realized, it's a choice that is passion-driven and with passion, you can literally do anything!