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Valeria Education for Empowerment Minor

Education for Empowerment Minor Internships Inspire Diverse Career Trajectories

As the minor serves students across the university, minor students serve the local community


Launched in 2018, the Education for Empowerment minor was born of a simple observation.

“We realized there were a number of students across our campus who were doing the work of education, but outside of teaching,” recalls Carla Shalaby, Coordinator of Social Justice Initiatives and Community Internships. “They were working with children, youth, and families in out-of-school settings—sometimes even in school settings—but without any training or expertise in how to do that well, and without any real clear understanding that that’s educative work.”

That’s why Shalaby and then-Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Teacher Education Shari Saunders mapped out what would become the Education for Empowerment minor. As Shalaby explains, their goal was “to try to capture this population of students who want to work in the field of learning and teaching, but don’t want to necessarily be classroom teachers.”

The minor itself was a first for the Marsal School, which had previously focused its undergraduate offerings exclusively on educator preparation courses. Together, Shalaby and Saunders sketched out a plan for a minor that was designed to explore the critical role education plays in building our individual and collective capacity to advance the aims of democracy and justice in civil society. It would be the right balance of theory and practice. The intended audience was undergraduates majoring in a liberal arts discipline who wanted to explore the intersections of that discipline and the work of education—that is, learning and teaching, broadly defined—in a range of diverse roles and contexts.

Five years and over 100 graduates later, the minor has been chosen by students representing 40 different majors across the university. Students have hailed from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the College of Engineering, the School of Nursing, and the Stamps School of Art and Design, among many others.

Minor students grapple with such questions as: What is the relationship, both historically and currently, between education and power; how do individuals, communities, organizations, and societies leverage learning and teaching as necessary tools for social change; and beyond schools and classrooms, what are the sites of educational and youth work that offer opportunities to advance justice in public life?

Along with 15 credit hours and a capstone project, an internship is key to completion of the Education for Empowerment minor. The goal of the internship is to give students practical experience in education work. This work can be conducted in both formal and informal education settings and can be dedicated to the educational experience of children, youth, or adults.

Sunny Liu

Drawing from a robust network of relationships with area organizations, Academic Advisor and Internship Coordinator Tim Golden works with students to place them in internships based on their interests. Sunny Liu (BS ’23), who was majoring in economics, undertook the minor to “balance out” his STEM-focused studies with classes in the humanities. For his internship, Golden suggested he might enjoy working with children in the after-school program at Community Action Network (CAN). At first, recalls Liu, he was just focused on fulfilling his internship requirement. “But then as I kept working, I couldn’t help but be a part of that community.” He admired how the leader of the program treated the children as if they were her own. Through observation and practice, Liu learned how to effectively manage a classroom.

“You didn’t have to always be super nice and you didn’t have to always be super straight, you just had to be you,” he recalls.

Liu’s supervisors at CAN noticed how invested he had become. When the internship was over, they offered him a paid position working in the organization’s food pantry.

“It was such an eclectic mix of people, and we all just loved talking. It genuinely felt like a big family. Every time we made a bag of food for a family, they really cared, like making sure each bag had milk and eggs because we don’t want anyone to go without milk and eggs. It taught me so much about what it means to care about your job,” says Liu.

As his graduation date neared, Liu applied for a business associate position with a charter school network in New York. But when the organization saw the Education for Empowerment minor on his resume, as well as the classroom experience he had gained through his internship at CAN, they asked if he would like to be a teacher instead. This fall, Liu began his career teaching eighth grade biology in the Bronx.

Liu’s story illustrates exactly what Shalaby had suspected might happen when she and Saunders mapped out the minor.

“We have a population of undergrads who really do want to become classroom teachers, but who fight that decision for a long time,” she says. “We’ve been able to capture those people initially through the minor. And we hope that perhaps in working with children, they come to pursue the path of teaching.”

Rather than receive an internship placement, some students in the minor create their own internship opportunity. Valeria Guzman-Barrientos (anticipated AB ’24) is a linguistics major in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts who plans to become a speech pathologist. She was drawn to the minor because she wants to work in school settings. Through a class called Community-Engaged Learning in English as a Second Language Teaching Contexts, she was able to work one on one with a current English Learner (EL) student in the Ann Arbor Public School district, and had the opportunity to speak with AAPS Director of English Learner Programs Huda Harajli. Guzman-Barrientos was impressed by how seriously and thoughtfully Harajli took her questions about the field into consideration.


“It made me feel like she actually cared about the students that were in EL, which isn’t always the case. They’re usually an afterthought. I speak from experience, because I was in EL when I was in elementary school,” says Guzman-Barrientos.

The next semester, she contacted Harajli to ask if she could intern in her office for the school district. In this role, Guzman-Barrientos helped coordinate an annual resource fair for new immigrant families. She compiled a comprehensive list of resources for housing, food, health, and mental health and employed her graphic design skills to share the resources on flyers. Working with the school district’s translation services department, she printed the flyers in different languages so that they would be easily accessible to incoming families.

“I think it was really important for me to have the internship because in the classes that I was taking, I was becoming a bit disillusioned with the system. It’s very easy to see that there are all these issues, but how am I as an individual going to be able to fix them? Just being able to take part in this one thing where maybe one of these resources or one flyer helps a family—it felt like bridging that gap of privilege a bit. It made me see that actually, there are a lot of things we can do to help reduce disparities in education without having to be directly working with policy or teaching in the classroom.”

At the outset, says Shalaby, “our primary commitment was leveraging our undergrads in the pursuit of serving kids and families toward advancing justice.” Every internship that is approved must seek to advance justice. “We wanted to make sure students got both coursework that would support their understanding of critical issues around oppression and justice, and that then they would get to be in an internship where in real time they would see the impact of those injustices on everyday people and figure out ‘What are my skills and talents to intervene on those?’”

Auriana Leismer (AB ’22) interned as a program assistant in a summer program at Bryant Community Center (which is also part of CAN). This was during the first summer of the pandemic, so the camp was held in a hybrid setting, affording Leismer her first experience teaching on Zoom. She worked with a group of third graders, meeting them outside the community center several times a week for nature walks. When the school year began, she stayed on with the organization, shifting into a tutoring role to offer homework help and literacy support for upper elementary and middle school students.

Tire Swing

Leismer, who came to U-M specifically to study education, says that “the minor laid the groundwork for my philosophy of education. It was the first time that I heard the term ‘opportunity gap’ rather than ‘achievement gap.’ That reframing made me realize I needed to think about my own identities and how those relate to my positionality within larger society and how that is going to affect how I go about teaching.”

Students in the minor choose to pursue one of four learning pathways: Advancing Equity Through Education Policy; Children and Youth in Context: Culture, Communities, and Education; Design Your Own Pathway; and Education in a Global Context, which Leismer chose. Once their coursework and internship are completed, students are asked to consider their learning across all their courses and reflect on how the totality of their experiences inform their thinking about the role of education in the empowerment of children, youth, and adults. This reflection is illustrated in their capstone project, a multimedia presentation that demonstrates their learning about education for empowerment.

“The minor gave me a lot of practice in talking about education and all of the different elements and factors that go into and affect education—in a global context, but in a local context as well,” says Leismer who notes that it shaped the rest of her undergraduate study and formed the foundation for how she approaches leading and facilitating discussions as an educator. Upon graduating, she continued on at the Marsal School in the Master of Arts with Elementary Teacher Certification program. This fall, she is working in a local middle school providing English Language support. “The minor,” says Leismer, “set me up for how I go about my teaching practice.”

“Our position is that education is an interdisciplinary field,” says Shalaby. She recalls a nursing student who interned in a pediatric cancer center supporting kids and families. After observing that kids were sometimes acted upon without having the full support of someone who sat at the intersection of medicine and education, she dedicated herself to making sure kids were meaningfully educated about their diagnosis. Over the years, several students have interned at The School at Marygrove (TSM), as an extension of the Marsal School’s involvement in the Detroit P-20 Partnership. A College of Engineering student helped to develop TSM’s first high school engineering curriculum. A student from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning attended architectural planning meetings to help redesign the elementary school.

“Sometimes you have one small interaction in an internship, and it helps a young person figure out what they want to do with their life, and what they’re most passionate about. That’s something you can’t always capture in a classroom,” says Shalaby. “You’re not going to get that necessarily from reading something, but you do get that from the relationships that you form in a field-based experience. I can’t imagine the minor without the internship piece. We want to graduate students who realize that relationships are at the core of all education work.”

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