Education M.A. Student Spotlight: Soraya
After teaching for a few years, Soraya Ramos got frustrated with the initiatives and policies being handed down from administrators and policy makers. So she decided to put herself in a position to eventually do something about it—by enrolling in Harvard’s Education Policy and Management Master’s program.
Where did you study for undergrad and what was your major?
I studied at UCLA and I was a political science major.
When did you graduate?
What did you do after graduating and how did you decide to pursue the Master’s in Education?
I went to Teach for America in Chicago to teach, and then after teaching for three years, I went into the nonprofit sector—just trying to re-establish my faith in education, and nonprofit work was what I felt was naturally the next step to take. After being in the nonprofit, I was craving answers, and asking myself more and more questions, and I just wanted to learn more about education and what’s happening. I think I waited until I really craved more. I wanted to go back to learn more to contextualize my experience in schools.
What were you teaching with Teach for America?
I was teaching fourth grade bilingual education
Where else you did you apply?
I applied to Columbia University in the Politics and Education Master’s program, and I was accepted. At Stanford, I applied to the Policy, Organization and Leadership Sciences program, and I was on the waitlist for that one. I applied to UPenn for the Education, Culture and Society program, and I was also accepted there. For Harvard, I applied to the Education Policy and Management program. At Berkeley I applied for the Social and Cultural Studies and I was denied from that school. And I applied to the University of Illinois at Chicago, I can’t recall the program exactly but I was accepted as well.
Why did you choose those schools and those programs?
I think it all comes from my teaching experience in Chicago public schools, and feeling frustrated with a lot of the initiatives that were imposed on our school on, I want to say a yearly basis. There was always something going on and—this might be just with this particular district—it was either school closures or pink slips. Losing our jobs always was a looming cloud, and also the new testing we needed to implement and with little direction and rationale. I think for me, I was just so frustrated, like who was coming up with these policies and not thinking it through with the implementation part—just throwing it out there and expecting it to be done. I think a lot of our teachers were just taking all the initiatives as normal, as in that’s just how it works here, and I said “there has to be a reason,” so that’s when I started looking into the macro level, which is the policy level, and said there has to be something there. I think that’s partly why I was interested in the politics of education, and then the intersectionality of our kids with their immigration, income, class, gender.
Why did you ultimately pick Harvard?
I think coming as a first generation student—no one in my family ever went to grad school or even graduated from college, I was the first to do it and to even think about it. For me graduate school was never in the plan. I think when I first saw my admission letter to UPenn, which is the first school that accepted me, that’s when something clicked, and I said “I am capable of getting into an institution like this.” I think that’s when the imposter syndrome kind of went away and I started to believe that I was capable and I brought something valuable to these programs.
When I found about Harvard later on, it was a no-brainer because—when I was applying that was kinda shooting for the moon and I said “I’ll land somewhere in the stars.” When I found out, I said, “okay this is where I need to go.” It wasn’t just name recognition but the program recognition. It’s highly regarded and that’s partly why, mostly why I chose Harvard.
What are your expectations of the program and what are you most looking for to?
I expect this program to be flexible and have options in where I want to take it. From what I can tell, it’s gonna give me the ability to make the experience for myself. I can take courses in the Kennedy School or in the law school or the business school, so I can get expertise in these different areas that I would have never been able to get otherwise.
I also feel like I’m going to be able to meet a lot of folks that are going to be like-minded, but also maybe folks I don’t necessarily agree with or that mirror my values. I do feel like all these people are going to bring something valuable to add into the conversation. Also just meeting and networking with all these folks who will also do great things in the education sector.
And I expect this would lead, with the program’s assistance, in leadership positions with managing in new policy and management, so learning how to be a leader and be a good one at that. I’ve seen a lot of leaders, in my experience, maybe not making the best decisions in my opinion. These courses will teach you how to be a better leader in education—that’s what I’m looking forward to, just really learning how to take on that role.
Are most of the students in these programs coming back to school after working as teachers or in the nonprofit sector, or do you think there will also be students coming straight from undergrad?
My impression, during the Open House, there were mostly folks who have been working in the field, a lot of them in teaching, and a few here and there with research.
Do you overall feel well prepared for the program?
I’m not really sure if you can be prepared, but the way that I define prepared is just having the heart to study this and having the best intentions with this. With so much work that I’ve done in the community I feel that this is the best way to be ready.
When you decided to go back to school, how did you prepare and make yourself a strong applicant?
I was procrastinating a lot in the process, just thinking about applying but never actually doing anything. I did feel little bit like, here I am working with my seniors, and them applying and seeing that I wasn’t doing much for my own application process. So at one point, I just felt like waiting another year and I was like, it’s so close to the deadline, why should I even try, and so for awhile I was just stopping the process, in fact there was no process. I think that’s why I was like I’ll just wait.
But I knew I couldn’t stay in my job for another year—I knew this was the time and especially with the whole election happening, this was the time to go back to school. The preparation after that was getting that support from my friends who have gone through the process, and reaching out for help, because I’m usually very private and I kind of stick to myself, like I got this, I’ll do it. But I would encourage other people to get it out there to someone you can trust or people that you trust, say “I want to apply, can you keep me accountable?” I started putting it out there as well—telling my boss, “oh I’m sorry I can’t make it to that event, I’m taking the GRE course.” That was my first step, my first tangible step towards grad school. I looked into GRE prep programs and some were out of my budget, so when I found Vince’s course, I said this is quick, it’s cheaper than if I get a 10-week course. I took just the boot camp, so when I enrolled it was like, this is perfect for my life right now, especially since it was already September and applications were due early January.
After the GRE course, I got a Passion Planner—my students were using it and my friends have used it in the past, and we all got one in our organization, and I said if I’m going to be teaching students how to use it, why not start myself. So I started to use a Passion Planner to create a goal road map, and essentially what this planner does is it sets you up for how to meet your goals and makes them very tangible—so you have to set goals, set the different tasks you need to do to get there, and you have to time everything, and so that’s how I held myself accountable.
And again having the support system to check in on me, but after setting those goals and taking the GRE course I made it work. Some people just say that I can’t apply, I work a lot, and I did too, I was working eight, nine hours a day plus taking kids home and things like that, but I said I need to make this time for myself. When I days off I was like nope, those days are mine. I’d literally drive the kids back to school for my job and then take that van over to Vince’s facility or to the office, like I’m gonna make it work, do whatever I have to do. It is possible—when you really make that commitment, so during the GRE course it was a lot of studying after work. I would go to a local coffee shop, even if it was super loud—I could not find any that were quiet in San Diego that worked with my hours, libraries were closed, so I remember studying from six to nine or seven to ten and then going home, sleeping, doing it again. But that was only a month, and I put in a lot of time for studying and I focused. I just kept myself really accountable for studying and being prepared for the next GRE course.
But after that, all the preparation for the GRE, and after I took the GRE exam on December 6th, I actually didn’t even start my personal statement, I had not started anything else. I was really stressed out and that’s again where I started doubting, like oh my gosh, applications are due in 20 days, what am I doing, it’s too late, I’m not going to try, I’ll wait another year. And my friends were like no no no, go ahead and get back to it, you can do this. So again I started working on all these other requisites, like my statement of purpose and resume. Recommenders were really tough for me because I was out of school for a long time, so I had no academic recommenders, so I reached out to professional recommenders—I didn’t give them much time and I felt really bad—and again I did not follow what all these other applicants did, like following the timeline, I was also reaching out to friends who had asked recommenders before to ask, what’s a formal way of asking people, what should I send them.
Did you find it tough to get back into that mindset after being out of school for a few years?
Oh yeah, the stamina to study all that. But my best friend told me that the best thing that school has taught me is how to be disciplined—and I was disciplined with my running, like I was running a lot, not very well, but then I said, let me transfer that over to my studies and to my grad school process, so I had to stop running for a little bit, but I was focusing on my grad school stuff.
Did you have to take any additional classes to fulfill any prereqs or were your undergrad and your work experience enough?
No, I did not take any extra classes, just the GRE.
Is there anything else you wish someone had told you before you started applying?
I don’t think so, but there was something that someone told me that I was really happy that they did—it was before I even started that process, someone asked me to sit down and ask myself “why am I interested in grad school?” And they said I should just sit with that question for awhile and write about it, so that’s what I would suggest to people. Why do you want to do this, not even why you want to do this specific program, but why do you want to go to graduate school period, and then maybe going more into depth with the program that you want to get into, but that’s what I was really grateful to hear from a friend, to sit and reflect before you even start anything.
Did that inform your process at all?
It did because I realized that I actually did want to go, and it wasn’t just because I’m getting older and everyone else is doing it. It was like no, this is why I know I need to go. I felt it before, but I wanted to articulate it, put it on paper.
Do you have any plans yet for after you graduate?
I think I’m just really open to these doors that are about to open for me, but definitely a goal that I have in mind is to get into policy level at the national and state level, like the State Department of Education or the Department of Education, just taking on filling in those shoes as a leader. I think that’s something that I want to learn how to do by the end of this program. Definitely policy, at the state or national level, that’s essentially where I’m going and I may even look into Fulbright Scholar Program.