Liberal Studies at the Education Development Center (feat. Alexia Raynal)
Alumni Aloud Episode 78
Alexia Raynal graduated from the Graduate Center’s MALS Program with an MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She is now an EdTech Researcher at the Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Alexia talks about working in the nonprofit research sector and how to best prepare for a career path in research outside academia.
This episode’s interview was conducted by Misty Crooks. The music is “Corporate (Success)” by Scott Holmes.
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VOICEOVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with the GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
MISTY CROOKS, HOST: I’m Misty Crooks, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Graduate Center and a fellow in the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I interview Alexia Raynal, who graduated from the Graduate Center with a Master’s in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She is now a Research Associate at the Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology. She talks to us about working in the non-profit research sector and how to prepare for this career path.
Alexia, thanks so much for joining us today. Could you give us an overview of your organization’s mission and what your role is there?
ALEXIA RAYNAL: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me today, Misty. So I work for a nonprofit that is called the Education Development Center, and it’s an organization that is built towards advancing lasting solutions to some of the most pressing educational, health, and workforce challenges across the globe, really, so we have a strong presence domestically here in the states, but we also have international work. And I worked for a, so to speak, like a research lab within EDC and it’s called the Center for Children and Technology. And we focus on research on how to support learning for young people and adults, especially if they use digital media or technology as a way of distributing the content, and a heavy focus on early learning and STEM just because there are really popular areas right now. A lot of our work is funded by the government or national foundations, so that’s where we’re heading. And I am a research associate too, and so in this capacity I get to lead and support a variety of research studies evaluating the effectiveness and the promise of educational interventions across, as I said, subject areas that leverage technologies and digital media.
CROOKS: That’s really interesting. How did you get interested in this particular field of work?
RAYNAL: The short story is that I was already doing research for other organizations. I worked with the creators of Sesame Street for a little, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center Lab at Sesame Workshop. Before that I was doing research for a professor from Rutgers University. That was my first position, I will say as a researcher. And it started when I was a graduate student at the Graduate Center. So I was working on my master’s project, and for that I was doing interviews with children of immigrants in the South Bronx. Really exploratory interviews just to see what their experiences being second generation children to immigrant parents in the South Bronx were. And my mentor, my advisor shared an opening for a research assistant position with this professor from Rutgers University who was also working with immigrant communities at the family court in the Bronx. And we started working together. And it was fantastic. It was eye opening, the way in which he was using fieldwork to inform the literature, but also very practical work. And so, this is what got me in, and I just never wanted to leave.
CROOKS: So, you’re touching on a bit here about your trajectory from grad school to your current role. Can you tell us a bit about your academic background?
RAYNAL: Absolutely, so I was born and raised in Mexico, where I achieved a BA in Communications and Digital Media. I came to New York to enroll in the MA program in liberal studies at the Graduate Center, so I moved to New York for my master’s program. And, initially, I was in a liberal studies track with a focus on Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino studies. And so, I really wanted to be in a program that was interdisciplinary, that would allow me to test very different fields. I thought I wanted to do more like curriculum studies, designing educational programs for museums. That’s what I wanted to do when I started graduate school. But because the program is so interdisciplinary, I ended up taking classes from the sociology department and from the urban education department. It was very interesting. I also took a lot of courses that had nothing to do with what I’m doing right now, like paleography and the study of old manuscripts, and it was wonderful. So, throughout the years I think my focus shifted a little bit from, really, the design of education programs for museums towards more like education, research, with a sociology focus.
CROOKS: And jumping ahead in time back to your current role, can you tell us what a typical day or week is like for you?
RAYNAL: There’s really no true typical day in my job because just the nature of field work and recruitment and all of our knowledge sharing tasks vary so much. But if I were to average out my activities throughout a year, you’d probably see that I spend about 40% of my time just kind of like sitting in front of a computer, writing up research plans, analyzing the data, and cleaning it up, summarizing reports, things like that. Then I would say about maybe 30% of my time I spend in phone calls, meetings with other people at EDC or with external partners. Then maybe 20% doing the actual field work, like hosting focus groups over zoom or phone calls. Before the pandemic, we were actually out in the world a lot in schools or in meeting spaces like daycare programs or after school programs speaking with families and running assessments with children. And then maybe I think I have like 10% left over for dissemination tasks, sharing findings with experts in the field, going to conferences, presenting at conferences, or chairing conference sessions. There’s also, I would say, a fair amount of paperwork, legal, travel also before the pandemic. And so, the schedule in any given week varies a little bit. Today, I know that I will spend most of my time my time in the computer and then I’ll do some focus groups later tonight also through zoom. But it changes a lot.
CROOKS: Would you say that there’s a balance between independent work and collaborative teamwork?
RAYNAL: Yes, definitely for my position. Especially because our work is project funded, so everything that we do is tied to a project and we tend to have a regular diet of about maybe three to four projects if you’re a full-time researcher at EDC and at the Center for Children and Technology, which is the lab that I belong to. And so, really, you wear different hats in in each project, so I might have a leading position in one of the projects where I’m really collaborating a lot and managing the different pieces and putting them together and making sure that everybody is working up to their tasks and then I might have, we might call it like a more passive position where I’m not leading the study but I’m in a different project where I’m just supporting with data collection tasks, for example, and it’s a little bit less collaborative. It varies, and it depends on the diet of projects that you have.
CROOKS: It sounds like there’s quite a bit of variety to your work as well.
RAYNAL: There is, which is something that I really love. I think the nature of this position is again like my studies, it’s very interdisciplinary. It’s also important that it allows you to carve out an area of specialty if that’s what you’re interested in. But there’s always room for exploring different subject areas, different populations, different grants, and each of those work differently.
CROOKS: You’re touching on this a bit already. What do you find most rewarding about your job?
RAYNAL: I would say knowing that what we do impacts people’s lives, hopefully for the better. You know, there are times when you realize that you wish you could have done a lot better. But I like doing the field work, being in touch with the realities of families and figuring out ways in which, for example, a lot of what we do is improving program delivery and helping the producers of educational content really meet family’s needs and meet them where they are. That can be very rewarding. On a personal level, I also enjoy working with very talented people in their areas, so I always get to learn from them and just gaining exposure to different ways of handling the research. You can have the same exact problem or the same situation, and you present that problem or issue to different project leads across groups and each of them will tackle it in a different way. And it’s really interesting to see kind of like the rationale and how each of those works really well, but it varies, right? So, there’s no, rarely is there ever like only one correct way to do things. There’s always different ways to go about it, and I really value that too.
CROOKS: That is the nature of research.
RAYNAL: There is no one absolute definite way to go, right?
RAYNAL: I think for someone who is just getting started in the field, it’s reassuring in some ways to know that maybe if your intuition or your training is telling you to do something, but it doesn’t really match with how other people do it, it can be okay, if you find the right way to think about it and tackle the issue.
CROOKS: And we have had quite the past year and a half. What are some challenges your organization is currently facing?
RAYNAL: Oh, my gosh, well the whole nature of doing virtual research and field work has been disrupted. We were already doing a fair amount of virtual research before, but it was always in a kind of optional capacity, like Plan B, if something fails, we’ll do virtual. Now everything is mandatorily virtual and so all the challenges from really figuring out what technology your population has access to. If they don’t have it, figuring out if we can use our project funds to provision families with tablets or computers, strong internet connection. How do you ship those over to people, where like to people’s homes? There are some families that don’t even have a stable home and are moving a lot, especially right now. There was a moment where shipping was complicated also because people didn’t want to bring things from outside into their homes. And then when it comes to just assessing children virtually, there’s a lot that goes on in terms of how you build rapport with a person when you’re in person or when you’re doing it virtually. How, all the nonverbal cues that are much harder to observe, also technical aspects, like the quality of the audio, children’s skills like tapping on screens or tapping on keyboards. So, it was a real challenge to figure out how to do the research, how to how to conduct assessments and have the outcomes be reliable. I’ll say that we’re a lot better at it, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. We faced a lot of debates around, for example, the minute that you’re conducting research with a family virtually you’re stepping into their homes you’re not in a neutral space anymore, you can see what’s going on, sometimes in the back, so we had to have difficult conversations about what would happen if we saw something that we felt uncomfortable with. How do you deal with that? Do you discontinue the call, or do you ask to postpone it to a different time? Do you remove the families from the study? Like there’s a lot of ethical questions involved with virtual research so we’re still navigating a lot of those.
CROOKS: Do you foresee at least some of the research remaining virtual or will there be a return back to in person research?
RAYNAL: I think virtual research will probably still be around for a little longer with the new variants we never know how long they’re going to go for. And one of my projects, for example, went on hiatus last year, hoping that, or thinking that we would by spring or summer that we could go back to school and do the research in person and now we’re just not sure anymore, so we’ve had to move forward with a hybrid model. I do think that going into schools is going to be still pretty difficult, especially if we’re doing field work in New York City schools, public schools. The protocols are so complicated. The timelines just don’t work with the research because it takes them a lot more time to approve protocols and people and vaccination tests, so I think working with school specifically is probably still going to require a lot of virtual work. If it comes to working in more informal learning settings like after school programs, I mean ironically, we also work with a lot of museums and learning centers, so I think working with those places and the families that attend those places is a little bit easier in terms of in-person research so in those cases I think it’ll be easier to go back to in-person research.
CROOKS: Switching gears, can you think about the knowledge and skills that current graduate students might need to develop in order to work for an organization like yours?
RAYNAL: I would really recommend building strong methodological frameworks for your work so really understanding how to design robust studies, mixed methods. There seems to be, how should I say it, a perception that quantitative work is more rigorous than qualitative work. But I really do recommend building both of those skills as robustly as possible because there are ways to doing for example, qualitative work in rigorous ways. And there was a true need for really doing that exploratory work, those open-ended questions that you can only explore through qualitative research. It’s important to know how to do those and how to do them well. And especially now when families are going through so much, and there are mental health issues and so every, every single research question that you might have these days is probably going to have to have a broad understanding of mental health, human health. And so that’s where I feel like the qualitative piece of the work is important because you need to be able to contextualize your population and make sure that you’re not making inferences based on missing data. Study design methodologies, qualitative and quantitative work, I think those are really strong. And then there’s a part of that we don’t do too much in school or I didn’t do it too much. It works in a similar way as publishing so and that piece is writing proposals to receive grants. So, knowing how to present, how to make a case for something, how to track a research question and back it up with the literature, how to create effective budgets for those projects. And some of that I’ve been able to develop, before I used to write grant proposals, I used to develop those skills through publishing academic journals because the structure of a paper is very similar to the structure of a grant proposal. You still need to have focus, a focal research question, you need to have the literature to back it up. Maybe you don’t need the budget, but you still need to present things with logic. And so, if there’s a way in which students can find a way to write draft proposals, I feel like that’s an important skill.
CROOKS: And relatedly, is there anything that you would recommend grad students do to boost their resumes?
RAYNAL: I think, the big area I would say in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors right now is conducting your work with equity, diversity, and inclusion frameworks. And so maybe highlighting, and this is something that I’m doing a lot for, like we’re interviewing people right now for new positions. And that’s something that really distinguishes one applicant from another, is the intentional use of asset-based language, strengths-based language because it matters. It affects all the work that you do and how you view your populations. And so having some demonstrated experience using asset-based language to conduct your work or being involved in equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives is really important. And that’s something that I don’t think people, a lot of people were thinking about maybe ten years ago, five years ago, and it’s really at the forefront these days. Other than that, I would say just the typical kinds of recommendations like making sure that you try to publish something or present findings at a conference that are a lot of places that are good places for highlighting student work. In my field, it was the AERA, the American Educational Research Association. They really take in a lot of ideas and allow people to present them, present their findings. Unfortunately for the nonprofit sector, I think demonstrated capacity to secure funding is really important, so any kind of experience like that just cite it your resume numerically, like or experience managing funds, even if it’s your fellowship or your scholarship, having some demonstrated capacity there.
CROOKS: That’s great. Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. As a final question, I’d like to know if you have any piece of advice that you’d like to leave our students with.
RAYNAL: All I can think of right now is how difficult the pandemic has been for so many people. I think we’re all probably going to be dealing with the repercussions of having been in a lockdown and being so isolated from others. So, the world doesn’t feel like it used to, and even if some people are going back to in-person classes, or in-person work, I feel like there’s a lot of anxiety still. And so, I would say just invest in yourself. Make sure that you create the mental space that you need to just be yourself and to connect with others. I think graduate school can be very isolating on its own. I remember spending endless nights in the library just typing on my computer by myself, even though you’re surrounded by other students you’re not really necessarily interacting a lot, and so I think finding what works for you. But do be proactive and trying to connect with other people and find a community that you can rely on when you just need to decompress and relax and get yourself a little bit of breathing room, distraction from your work. It’s really important for the work. You’ll be a better thinker, you’ll be a better problem solver if you invest in that, and I think this is really, I can’t stress enough the importance of doing that, especially after the pandemic. I feel like we’re gonna have to work a lot on creating that space for ourselves.
CROOKS: Great. Thank you so much.
RAYNAL: Of course, thank you so much for having me.
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