J. Cynthia McDermott – Antioch University Los Angeles
Posted on Tuesday, October 11th, 2011
J. Cynthia McDermott’s career has taken her to some incredibly diverse places, from the streets of Philadelphia to the rural countryside of Moldova. A common thread running through her experiences is a desire to make the world a better place for those who lack a fighting chance.
Last year, Dr. McDermott received a prestigious honor made possible by her life’s work: She was awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant to teach and train on civic engagement in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“This was a huge recognition of what I’ve attempted to accomplish in my career,” says McDermott, education program chair at Antioch University Los Angeles (AULA). “As an academic, it’s one of the true jewels in the crown.”
McDermott spent from February to June 2011 at the University of Sarajevo and three other institutions. In collaboration with faculty, she developed “train the trainer” models to encourage the creation of democratic classrooms that support civic engagement.
A Lifelong Interest in Social Justice
Growing up in a family of Irish union firefighters sparked McDermott’s interest in social justice. She credits her commitment to democratic teaching, meanwhile, to her progressive undergraduate education at Millersville University.
McDermott launched her professional career in 1971 as an English teacher in rural Pennsylvania. Over the next 18 years, she earned a master’s degree in education, organized a reading program to assist gang members in her hometown of Philadelphia, taught bilingual kindergarten in Compton, California, and more.
In 1989 McDermott began an extended period in higher education by joining the staff at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Nine years later, she was chosen as a fellow for the Soros Foundation Open Society Program. From 1998 to 2005, she volunteered in Moldova, Armenia, and Romania, partnering with educators to help students foster critical reading skills.
She views her work in those former Soviet republics–along with the rest of her career–as building upon the ideals she developed as an undergraduate at Millersville.
“My interest has always been in promoting the health of our democracy,” she said. “To do that, we need citizens who are good critical thinkers and understand the principles of good democratic practice.”
Answering the Call
In 2009, three years after coming to AULA, McDermott learned that Bosnia and Herzegovina had submitted a request for civic educators through the Fulbright Program. Suspecting she had the ideal skill set, she decided to apply.
Following a complex, lengthy review process, McDermott was named a Fulbright Scholar in May 2010. About eight hundred U.S. faculty and professionals travel abroad each year to teach and/or conduct research through this highly competitive program.
While living in Sarajevo, McDermott trained the people who train teachers and other educators on democratic teaching practices. One of the fundamental problems with education in much of the world is what McDermott calls “the old lecture style.”
“It’s all, ‘Sit down and shut up, do what I tell you to do,’” she notes. “The student has no ability to ask questions, to participate. Research shows that doesn’t generally encourage people to be critical thinkers.”
This issue is exacerbated in a place like Bosnia and Herzegovina. While the country has a highly educated population, it also has a history of autocratic rule and lack of civic engagement. Worse yet, citizens today feel powerless to effect change due to the bureaucratic governmental structure, says McDermott.
“Everything I did over there was geared toward creating an environment where students and faculty can get in touch with their voice,” she says. “Because you can’t see yourself creating change if you don’t have a voice.”
While McDermott’s stint in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in June, she has already returned to the country as part of her work with Step By Step, an early childhood program. And you get the feeling that more international travels await, all in the pursuit of a greater good.
“Our ideals are what frame who we are,” says AULA’s first Fulbright Scholar. “When you take those with you, that’s how you fly.”