Doctoral graduate Mandy Stewart wins national dissertation award

Williamson & Stewart
Patricia Williams of PDK International (left) presents Mandy Stewart with award at a special reception March 22.

Update 4-25-13: Read Mandy's interview with Learning First Alliance.

Update 4-2-13: Watch the live Spanish-language TV interview with Mandy Stewart on Vive la Manana.

Mary Amanda "Mandy" Stewart has earned the Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award from PDK International for research that she conducted while earning a doctoral degree in literacy and language studies from the University of North Texas' College of Education.

Stewart received the doctoral degree in 2012 and is now a postdoctoral research associate for the Morningside Children's Partnership, an initiative with UNT to improve the academic outcomes of children in Fort Worth's Morningside community by focusing on young people's educational, health and emotional needs from conception through college.

Stewart's research examined how Latino and Latina adolescent immigrants are gaining literacy skills outside of school — through Facebook, after-school jobs and entertainment such as movies, television and music videos.

She presented the details of her research and accepted a $5,000 award from Dr. Patricia Williams, PDK's president-elect, at a reception on March 22 at the close of the Fourth Texas-Jalisco Conference in Education and Culture. In addition to the cash award, a summary of her research will be published in the educational journal, Kappan.

Stewart's dissertation — titled Social Networking, Workplace, and Entertainment Literacies: The Out-of-School Literate Lives of Newcomer Latina/o Adolescents —focused on four Latino high school students who were new to the U.S. and learning English.

Although struggling in school, they demonstrate through Facebook that they are using multiple languages, Stewart said. They are crossing virtual borders to talk with friends and family in other countries through electronic communication, showing they possess sophisticated transnational skills, she said. And they communicate in multimodal ways – through video and pictures, her research showed.

"They were acquiring English more effectively through these means than in school," Stewart said. "We need to consider what it means to be literate and to be educated. Most of these students probably will not graduate from high school, because even though they are trying so hard, they need to pass the high-stakes tests by the time they turn 21."

While they have valuable skills, they are not able to leverage these skills in the current academic setting due to schools' narrow definition of literacy, she said. Stewart suggests that educators modify classroom practices to more effectively teach 21st-century literacy skills.

The four students she studied wanted to be a bilingual teacher, pediatrician, detective and defense attorney, she said.

"In medicine, criminal justice, the legal system and education, we need bilingual people," she said. "We need people who can cross borders on a daily basis. Our society desperately needs the skills they already possess, but we are not valuing what they have."

Carol Wickstrom of the UNT faculty chaired Stewart's dissertation committee, which also included Leslie Patterson of UNT, Nora White of Texas Woman's University and Samuel Manickam of UNT.

Before earning her doctoral degree, Stewart taught Fort Worth ISD students who had recently arrived in the United States from other countries.

"I knew I could come here to UNT and focus my efforts on these English learners at the secondary level," she said.

Stewart also recently earned UNT's College of Education 2012 Dissertation Award, which includes a $1,000 cash prize.

--Ellen Rossetti, News Promotions