Q-A with SERP alum Gwendolyn Baxley

The Summer Education Research Program (SERP) aims to encourage, promote, and prepare undergraduate students with diverse backgrounds to both pursue and thrive in their future graduate studies.

SERP is sponsored by UW–Madison’s School of Education and the university’s Graduate School, and it aims to increase opportunities for individuals to engage in important, independent research in fields across the arts, health, and education.

This work is guided by a faculty member or research associate mentor who is in, or affiliated with, the School of Education. The program offers a competitive $4,500 stipend for participants, as well as other amenities, including travel expenses to Madison and housing.

Over the years, SERP has prepared its student participants for a range of graduate programs and a variety of careers.

To give some insight into SERP and all that it has to offer, the communications team from the School of Education is interviewing SERP alumni who are willing to share their thoughts. Following is a Q-A with Gwendolyn Baxley, who participated in SERP in 2012 and today is an assistant professor with the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education.


How did you learn about SERP, and what made you interested in pursuing a mentored research experience? I was a part of the Ronald E. McNair program as an undergraduate student. During the second summer of the program, they encouraged us to apply for research opportunities near and far. In my process of learning about different undergraduate research programs, I came across SERP and the rest was history!

Where were you doing your undergrad work, and what were you majoring in when you decided to attend SERP? My major as an undergraduate student at Rutgers University New Brunswick was psychology, with minors in education and English.

What was your most meaningful experience or experiences from SERP? My most meaningful experience as a part of SERP was getting to meet the amazing Black graduate students and faculty that gave us important gems and insight into life as a graduate student professionally, socially, and personally. I learned from them about being holistically well and navigating life as a Black student in academia.

Seeing them inspired me to believe that I could pursue graduate school and an academic career as well.

Another memorable experience was presenting my summer research at the end of the program. After 10 intense weeks of long nights and days of collecting literature, conducting research, preparing for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and writing a research paper, we were able to present our work in front of faculty and graduate students whose work I admired.

Who had the greatest impact on you and your SERP experience? Dr. Bethany Brent was a great mentor during the SERP experience and beyond.

I first met Dr. Brent when I was a shy undergraduate student in the 2012 SERP cohort. During SERP, Dr. Brent spent countless hours helping me dissect my academic writing skills and deepen my analysis of research and theory. With love and compassion, she encouraged me to push further and work harder when I doubted my abilities. Even when I thought I had written and conceptualized my best academic work, she sparked my intellectual curiosity by asking me pointed and thoughtful questions and reinvigorating my determination to learn and understand the complexities of my research topic. Through this process, she inspired me to strive for a level of nuance and intellectual rigor that I was unaware I was capable of.

After the 10-week intensive summer research program, I left UW–Madison with a detailed and compelling research proposal, stronger presentation skills, and a clearer direction regarding my academic future. More importantly, because of Dr. Brent, I left the summer program as a sharper thinker, recognizing and appreciating my agency, and with a renewed fascination for educational research and policy. Dr. Brent did not tell me what to think or what to write but taught me how to thoroughly engage my own ideas, writing, and research. She also valued my perspective and strived to learn from my fellow undergraduate scholars. I reflect back on Dr. Brent’s words of encouragement during the first day of SERP: to “walk with a purpose.” Inspired by those words, I now strive to move with purpose in every aspect of my life.

What role did SERP play in your decision to pursue graduate studies? The SERP program played an integral role in me deciding to pursue a graduate degree. Although SERP ended that summer in 2012, I continued to apply the knowledge and skills that I learned from Dr. Brent while writing my Senior Honors Thesis and crafting research statements for graduate school applications. Throughout my senior year, Dr. Brent continued to take time to provide insight regarding my thesis, graduate program options, and my academic career. With her in-depth feedback and direction, I applied for and was accepted to both of my top graduate school choices. She was one of the first people to not only congratulate me on my accomplishments, but also help me to return and become settled into my new home in UW–Madison’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis — the university where she helped me solidify my research interest in education and where I decided to continue my doctoral studies.

What are you currently doing professionally? Did your time with SERP play a role in helping you get to where you are today? I’m currently in my fourth year as an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy within the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. My work explores community-engaged educational leadership and educational spaces that center the affirmation, well-being, critical consciousness, and self-determination of Black youth and families. I also explore how anti-Blackness manifests and is disrupted in education to shape the experiences of Black youth and their families. My most recent research projects explore these areas within the context of historical and contemporary community schools.

SERP played a pivotal role in getting me where I am today. It was because of SERP that I considered UW–Madison as a graduate school option while as an undergraduate student and where I went on to earn a PhD from the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. The faculty and training at UW–Madison prepared me for the career I have today.

What advice do you have for future SERP scholars?

Tip One: In the words of one of  my mentors, Dr. Bethany Brent, during SERP, “walk with a purpose.”  For me, this means living your life as a scholar centered on doing the soul work that feeds your spirit and your purpose.

Tip Two: Use the university as a tool to fulfill your purpose. Take advantage of EVERY opportunity, resource, and connection to do the work that feeds your soul.

Tip Three: Build community! Build your tribe, your family, your village. In community, we can celebrate each other and push each other when the systems tell us not to and also disrupt these spaces as a whole when they cause harm.

Tip Four: Know that you are enough! Know that you are brilliant and know that you are worthy regardless of what dominant narratives are out there that try to tell you any different. Embrace your greatness, take up space, and be unapologetically yourself in academic spaces.

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