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Alumna Receives Cambridge Ph.D. in Education Policy

September 17, 2009

Julia Rafal
Julia Rafal

Only three short years ago, Lehman alumna Julia Rafal received the prestigious Marshall Scholarship to pursue a doctorate at the University of Cambridge in England. Now, in addition to a long list of other accomplishments, she has completed her Ph.D in education policy with a focus on students with disabilities.

"My research explored the disjunctions that occur between policies (e.g., Federal, State, local level) and practices (e.g., school, classroom level) for students in inclusion settings," says Dr. Rafal, whose dissertation is titled Inclusive Education: Exploring Opportunities for Change and Resistance to Hegemony in Three Autonomous New York City Schools. Her research was conducted in each of the school models that exist in New York City—private, public, and charter.

Dr. Rafal, who received her master's in childhood education and special education from Lehman through the Teach For America program, was one of forty-three people nationwide to win the Marshall Scholarship in 2006, which gave her $60,000 a year to complete her doctorate. The award, named for George C. Marshall, whose plan helped to rebuild Europe after World War II, seeks to strengthen the relationship between the British and American people and their institutions by creating opportunities for high-achieving Americans to study at British institutions.

Dr. Rafal completed her M.Phil. at Cambridge in 2006-07, presenting a comparative study of the policies and practices for students with disabilities within the U.K. and the U.S. She submitted her Ph.D. in May 2009 and defended the work on July 13, passing her written and oral examination without any corrections.

While studying at Cambridge, Dr. Rafal worked as a research assistant for members of the education faculty and coauthored their publications. She was the principal research assistant at the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies at Cambridge.

In 2006, she was hired as president of the U.K. fund-raising board for an NGO called Educar, Integrar, and Crecer. In that position, she developed and led the U.K. staff as well as fund-raising activities of this UNESCO-funded organization, which works directly with schools and their community members in the shanty towns of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to implement computer labs and learning centers for students and their families.

Aside from her academic work, Dr. Rafal has been very busy with artistic pursuits. "I was heavily involved in the theatre world in Cambridge," she says, "and had a number of supporting roles, as well as a starring role in Dangerous Liaisons as Madame Tourvel last year." She also cofounded a NYC-based theatre initiative called Plays for Progress, which promotes the works of marginalized and up-and-coming playwrights.

"We intend to expand our initiative this year to an after-school program that aims to develop the leadership and communication skills of New York City students through the power of the performing arts in an after-school setting," says Dr. Rafal, who still hopes to one day open her own network of charter schools based on her doctoral research findings.

Right now, though, she is working as chair of the Education Department for a public middle and high school in Washington Heights called WHEELS (Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning Schools), one of the schools she worked with for her doctoral field research.

"After writing journal articles, supervising undergraduate students, and presenting my own research at international conferences," she says, "I think I would like to spend some more time in higher education as a critical disability theorist." Her experience at Cambridge, she adds, broadened her view of the world and the U.S. education system through a new academic, theoretical, and personal perspective.