Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sarah DeVan Awarded Washington College's 2008 Frederick Douglass Fellowship

Chestertown, MD — Washington College is pleased to announce that Sarah DeVan '09 has been awarded the school's Frederick Douglass Fellowship.

Now in its fourth year, the Frederick Douglass Fellowship supports student work in African-American studies and related areas. The author, activist and diplomat Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), for whom the fellowship was named, was born in Talbot County, Md., about 30 miles south of Chestertown, and retained a deep attachment to the Eastern Shore until the end of his life.

The fellowship, which provides an annual grant of up to $1,500 to a sophomore or junior and a $500 honorarium to a faculty mentor paired with the student, is administered through the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

"Sarah's project, while academically and intellectually intensive, has also taken her out into the world beyond campus to address a significant social problem," said Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Starr Center. "It is exactly the kind of work that the Starr Center's fellowships were designed to support—and it is especially appropriate for a program named after Frederick Douglass, who was both an author and an activist.

DeVan's project, "Missed Opportunity and Brighter Future: The Reading Lag in African-American Students and How to Fix It," explores the achievement gap in reading comprehension between elementary students of different racial backgrounds.

Through visits to schools with high performing programs, an intensive examination of the Head Start program at Chestertown's Henry Highland Garnet Elementary, and participation in the State of Maryland Reading Council Conference, DeVan has worked to pinpoint the best strategies, both current and developing, to narrow the gap.

A human development (teaching) major and black studies minor, DeVan hopes to apply her conclusions to her own work in elementary classrooms. With support from the Cater Society of Junior Fellows, she plans to continue the project over the summer, testing her conclusions "on the ground" through operating a tutoring program for struggling readers in Harford County.

"As this year's Frederick Douglass Fellow, I've had the opportunity to explore the gap in literacy skills that frequently develops among minority students," said DeVan. "I've been able to research the factors that contribute to this gap as well as the programs that have been successful in closing it."

Throughout her project, DeVan has worked closely with her chosen faculty mentor, Professor Sean O'Connor, Chair of the Department of Education at Washington College. "Sarah's enthusiasm for her project was born in her reading and study of inequality in schools," said Dr. O'Connor. "Her caring is fathered (or mothered) by her admirable sense of social justice, and she has been teaching me as her project progressed. It has been a simple pleasure to work with Sarah."

The Frederick Douglass Fellowship was established through a generous gift from Maurice Meslans and Margaret Holyfield, to encourage students to conduct independent research in African American studies. Each year, during the spring semester, it also brings to campus a visiting scholar, writer, musician, etc. engaged in the study or interpretation of African-American history and related fields.

This year's Frederick Douglass Visiting Fellow, Gretchen Gerzina, Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor of Biography at Dartmouth College, spent a week in residence at Washington College in March, visiting classes, meeting with students, and discussing her work on 18th-century black New Englanders Abijah and Lucy Terry Prince.

Established in 2000 with a grant from the New York-based Starr Foundation, the C.V. Starr Center explores our nation's history—and particularly the legacy of its Founding era—in innovative ways. Through educational programs, scholarship, and public outreach, and especially by supporting and fostering the art of written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between past and present, and between the academic world and the public at large.

From its base in the circa-1746 Custom House along Chestertown's colonial waterfront, the Center also serves as a portal onto a world of opportunities for Washington College students. Its guiding principle is that now more than ever, a wider understanding of our shared past is fundamental to the continuing success of America's democratic experiment.

"This research has left a huge imprint on my heart," said DeVan, "and I will never look at teaching the same."

May 18, 2008

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