The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Testament to a Longhorn Education

Wed, April 20, 2011

It is hard to imagine a more fitting student to be named a Dean’s Distinguished Graduate than Shelby Carvalho, a Liberal Arts honors student majoring in government and humanities.

The College of Liberal Arts annually honors 12 seniors with the Dean's Distinguished Graduate Award for their leadership, scholarly achievements and service to the community. Shelby was, we induce, an easy pick on all three counts.

The University of Texas at Austin presented Shelby with something incredibly American — opportunity — and she ran with it, and the congruence between Shelby’s path and the university’s core purpose of transforming lives for the benefit of society is striking.

Shelby was raised in Northern California. Her parents did not attend college, but Shelby wanted to. She also wanted to buck the herd migrating to this or that state school along the West Coast, so she headed to Austin, half expecting her professors to show up for class on horseback. She had no detailed agenda when she arrived, just will and open eyes.

When her first spring break rolled around, she wanted something different, and she found the campus’s Alternative Spring Break, the student organization that transforms vacation into an opportunity to give back. There were two choices. One was in Virginia. That sounded cold, and Shelby did not want to be that different. The other was in Arizona, with Teach for America. Shelby would be helping out in a Phoenix school serving low-income students. It would be warm in Arizona. She went to Phoenix, and it changed her life.

She was only a freshman, but the image was powerful. The kids she had come to help were stuck in a cycle of underperformance. There had been a fiscal crisis. There were cutbacks. Classrooms were overcrowded, with about 40 students in this particular classroom. Many were special needs students, but there was no one there who could tend to them.

Shelby could see past the moment. She could see a bigger picture. She saw a classroom of children dying for someone to come and help them, but no one to answer their call. An increase in dropout rates would follow, which eventually would increase the public burden on social services. Things had to improve here, at the root. The kids were in school, but they weren’t getting an education. They didn’t truly have access, and in the long run everyone would pay for it.

This was just the beginning of Shelby’s journey. Hers was still a relatively narrow exposure to the wider world, but things were about to take off with the help of a pesky requirement to take six hours of government coursework. Fortunately for Shelby her second semester of government came with a bonus summer edition — a Maymester study abroad opportunity to immerse herself in the politics of the Catholic Church in Rome. Shelby was introduced to an extraordinary class and a professor she would later nominate for professor of the year, and it was the first in a series of international experiences that would shape her time at the university.

“To meet people high up in the Catholic Church, to study religion and politics and be there, to see it operating in Rome and consider the effects across the world — it was amazing,” Shelby says of her experience.

Shelby’s second trip out of the country came thanks to a study abroad opportunity in Ghana, where she built a library for a village primary school. As Sean Theriault, associate professor of government, puts it so aptly, “there’s a library in Ghana because of Shelby. It was totally her project. Just imagine, there are probably kids in this village wearing burnt orange, who aspire to come to UT because Shelby thought enough of them to educate them.”

But the trip to Ghana was about more than what Shelby gave, it was also about what she was gaining. Leading sex education and health workshops in a secondary school and being a literacy tutor, she was gaining experience, strengthening her academic portfolio and reinforcing her passion for teaching. Being able to talk directly to school-age girls, gaining first-hand knowledge of education issues in a developing country, and the opportunity to talk to and observe people on the ground were real boons to her academic development, and her defining academic project on female access to education in the developing world began to take shape.

Each international experience emboldened Shelby for the next, and she had two stops left. First was Rwanda. Through a Texas Ex working with the Peace Corps, Shelby got involved in a Books for Africa project, and in Rwanda she built shelves and organized more than 20,000 books in a school library. She was now ready for her trip to Costa Rica.

On the face of it, this would be a breeze compared with Ghana and Rwanda, but those were highly institutionalized trips where she was flanked by a supporting cast. She would do Costa Rica on her own — full immersion into a foreign town, family, school and foreign language. She became fluent in Spanish, which is paying dividends now given her ability to teach the U.S. Spanish-speaking population.

In Costa Rica, she taught English and physical education in primary school. As always, there was something deeper to the experience. Things were different in Costa Rica. The only person in the town who owned a car was the school teacher. It warmed her heart to be someplace where teachers were on par with doctors, lawyers and politicians. It substantiated for her that education is as important as she has come to believe and worthy of her dedication.

In the classroom, Shelby was molding her experiences into a coherent and rigorous program of study. Through the Bridging Disciplines Program, she earned a certificate in ethics and leadership. She signed up for a major in humanities focused on international comparative education. The humanities major was the perfect fit for Shelby’s entrepreneurial spirit, giving her the ability to design an interdisciplinary program around the nexus of education policy and international development. Shelby is writing her senior thesis, “Education Policy, Gender Equity and Economic Development in the Third World: A comparative policy analysis of female access to education in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Ghana,” under the guidance of Jane Lincove, assistant professor of public affairs in the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Shelby also chose to major in government, and that experience far exceeded her original presumptions. Like many undergraduates, Shelby envisioned the government major as only a pre-law program, but she encountered something much broader. For example, she enrolled in a course on issues in Third World development with Zach Elkins, assistant professor of government. The course allowed her to think more seriously about her international experiences.

The theories she learned in class clicked with what she learned in the field, but she was also able to drawn on her observations to suggest where those theories might be improved. And, for someone who has had such a measurable practical impact on the world around her, Shelby also came to appreciate the value of theory. As she understands it, research is necessary to identify what needs to be done, but it is theory that guides and structures research.  And at a more abstract level, she found that thinking about theoretical issues in class often served as the basis for her thought outside of class, for her thinking about leadership and service opportunities and ultimately for taking action.

The greatest academic influence on Shelby was the coursework she completed with Theriault who, along with government professor Bryan Jones, runs the J.J. “Jake” Pickle Research Mentorship Program. The year-long course immerses undergraduates in their professors’ research programs. At the time, Theriault was investigating reauthorization votes in Congress, determining whether reauthorization votes were as polarized as the vote on the initial legislation. Shelby focused on education policy, looking at the No Child Left Behind Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Shelby found that some education policy issues are more polarizing than others and what conventional wisdom would lead us to expect plays out. Social policy and redistributive issues are the most contentious, with bussing and funding charter schools being prime examples. To some this might be a mundane finding, but she frames it in much more evocative light, pushing the broader question about the extent to which political polarization on these issues interferes with the quality of education students receive.

Shelby’s experiences in and out of the classroom, especially those with Theriault, have influenced her thoughts about teaching and research.

“Professor Theriault is such a great inspiration because of the research he does. He does research and brings it into the classroom, and that makes class more interesting and relevant,” Shelby says. “And by exposing us to and involving us in his research he motivates us to go and gather the facts for ourselves.

“I want to contribute to making change. Research is the foundation of the path to change, to identifying changes that are needed and developing a strategy for acting,” she adds. “Professor Theriault and his research inspired me and other students by showing us we can be part of that.”

Shelby remains focused on the grade school classroom, where it all begins, where, she says, there is a direct connection between the individual child and the U.S. position in the global economy. And in a world of dwindling resources she is not despondent.

“Costa Rica, Ghana … these countries have far less resources for education than we do, but they have teachers who are highly motivated and communities that value education and see education as something for everyone,” she says.

Shelby believes that teacher quality is critical to positive outcomes, and that the path there is not necessarily through an increase in financial award. It could begin, she says, with an increase in status for our teachers, and it needs to come along with increased rigor in our teacher training. She also says that we must have high expectations for all students regardless of circumstance, a relentless pursuit of excellence and a commitment on the part of teachers to figure out what motivates individual students.

Shelby draws heavily from her experience at the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), an Austin charter school where she helps teachers, tutors seventh grade reading and writing and teaches sign language in Saturday School.

“Those kids have tough lives, but they feel like they are on a team, they are held to high expectations and they know they have the support to meet those expectations,” Shelby says. “Many of my students struggle with the dangerous realities of gangs and drugs everyday in their communities, but they are able to commit themselves to education as a way to rise above those negative influences.

“I have seen what real poverty looks like, and education is a way out of poverty and it is important to our progress as a nation,” she adds. “Education is the power to choose what you want to do, and if we cut off access to education we go back to education being just for people of a certain socioeconomic status, and I don’t see anything good about that.”

In addition to being named a Distinguished Graduate, Shelby is a Texas Parents Most Outstanding Student, a Cactus Yearbook Outstanding Student and one of three to receive a Texas Exes President’s Leadership Award.

Shelby has been president and site leader for the university’s Alternative Spring Break, chaired the Liberal Arts Council academic affairs committee and was the council’s vice president, was an at-large member and COLA representative to the Senate of College Councils, mentored and conducted research for the Greater Austin Crime Commission Longhorn Leaders and currently interns at the Texas Senate Committee on Education.

“Shelby’s contributions outside the classroom are nothing short of astonishing,” says Larry Carver, an English professor and director of the college’s honors and humanities programs. “Nearly every activity Shelby has undertaken represents not a day or a week but a major commitment of time, energy, intelligence and passion.”

After graduation Shelby will return to Phoenix, where she will serve a two-year commitment to Teach for America.

The University of Texas at Austin changes people. They change the world. Shelby Carvalho proves it.

by Stuart Tendler

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