Katie White: Focusing on Adolescents and Civic Engagement

Katie White: Focusing on Adolescents and Civic Engagement

by Marilyn Sherman

Before Katie Weitz White became a doctoral student in the Human Development and Social Policy Program (HDSP), she taught middle schoolers in Chicago's Henry Horner housing project. Even in her mathematics curriculum, she encouraged her students to think about social issues. And today her work continues to focus on the civic engagement of adolescents living in poverty.

Katie Weitz White, doctoral student in human development and social policy.
Katie Weitz White, doctoral student in human development and social policy.

White points out that research shows students involved in community service—either as volunteers or to meet a requirement—do better in school and gain psychologically as well. Her goal is to increase the opportunities for kids to be involved in communities in meaningful ways. "So many times I've been told kids can't do this," she says, but she has witnessed students' enthusiasm firsthand and knows the psychological benefits are strong. "Having a sense of purpose is important for adolescents," she maintains.

"I'm really interested in looking at how students understand engagement as part of who they are," White says of her research. Currently she is evaluating a service learning program with the University of Nebraska, looking at how students understand civic engagement related to their role and purpose. Although she will return to her doctoral studies in January, she is now on leave working as the director of education initiatives with the Sherwood Foundation in Omaha.

After graduating from Carleton College in political science and earning a master's degree in education from DePaul University, she began teaching in the Chicago Public Schools, a path she saw as the most direct route to social change. However, once she realized the systemic problems, she was attracted to HDSP. "It looked at the big picture," says White, who has always been concerned about social justice and was inspired by her mother, a social worker. "Now after the training I have received, I can use that skill and knowledge to make a difference."

She credits many of her HDSP professors, whom she describes as "the best people I know," for opening her eyes. For example, Greg Duncan made the issue of poverty broader for her, and James Spillane showed her the complexities of implementing policy. As a Spencer Fellow with Barton Hirsch, she studied improving the lives of children in poverty, and with James Rosenbaum she considered social trends. "However, through it all, Dan McAdams was the one who reminded me that it was about the person," she asserts. Through his mentorship, she maintains a psychological angle as an educator, focusing on how people make sense of their lives.

Her involvement as a fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences program, which trains young scholars from multiple disciplines in rigorous education research, provides its own unique benefits. "It helps me to focus my attention on practical questions in K–12 education," she notes.

In what stands out for her as a
In what stands out for her as a "beautiful night," Katie White took her Chicago middle-school students to an opera and dinner. Her husband, artist Watie White, commemorated the evening with this woodcut.

In retrospect, she says of SESP, "I went there to get answers and got more problems, but it's been invaluable in helping me to think better, to think through issues more deeply." Now she feels she can "speak the language of policy." Overall, says White, "I feel Northwestern really prepared me to translate research for talking to policymakers, superintendents, teachers and students."

Looking to the future, White aspires to be a teacher educator, specifically a liaison in training teachers for service learning programs. In addition, she wants to continue direct involvement with adolescents.

"Sometimes people think it's too late, but I see adolescence as a time of new discovery, new beginning, when people can learn who they are in relation to the world," she says. "Adolescents are changing, and the world has different expectations. It's an opportunity for an adolescent to say 'who am I now?' and begin a search. It's not too late. It's just the right time to intervene, to encourage, to find a positive direction."

The irony of her life goal is not lost on her: "I really hated adolescence, so it's really funny that I ended up studying it."
By Marilyn Sherman with photo by Andrew Campbell