A master’s program explores how politics and culture impacts education access and equity

A desire to create educational access and learn about different facets of education led students to pursue the Education, Culture, and Society program at Penn GSE.

Growing up Palestinian in the Jaffa area of Tel-Aviv in Israel, Graduate School of Education student Alamia Biro felt she was a girl between two worlds.

At home with her family, she cherished Arab culture and the familiar rhythms of Islam. In the classrooms of the schools she attended, she encountered Western-based curricula taught in French, English, and later Hebrew, with classmates who hailed from countries around the world.

A teacher in a classroom with young children looking closely at a globe on a desk.

“I felt like I was always in between, but I also felt like this is a strength, because I can see two perspectives, and I can try to build a bridge between these two worlds,” says Biro, who is currently a student in the Education, Culture, and Society master’s program at Penn GSE.

She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree at Tel Aviv University and managed the Arab sector of Educating for Excellence, a nonprofit with centers across Israel dedicated to educating children on the socioeconomic and geographic periphery of the nation. Through this work she recognized even more obstacles for Arab-Palestinian students, including language barriers, poor teacher training, and a lack of formal educational support structures.

“I felt fortunate that my parents were aware of the importance of higher education,” says Biro, who saw through her work “how urgent it was for me to work in education and have an impact back home.”

That realization led her to Penn GSE on a Fulbright Master’s Outreach fellowship. One of several awards granted by Fulbright Israel for study in the United States by Israeli citizens, the Outreach fellowship supports master’s studies for students of Arab or Ethiopian origin.

Penn GSE’s Education, Culture, and Society (ECS) master’s program is a one-year course of study that encourages students like Biro to examine the social, cultural, and historical aspects of education and prepare for careers in research, community advocacy, and educational or nonprofit administration. It allows students the flexibility to follow their own research interests—through a variety of interdisciplinary electives and the selection of a master’s thesis topic—while providing a strong foundation in scholarly methods.

This flexibility is by design, explains Sigal Ben-Porath, professor and chair of the Literacy, Culture, and International Education division, which is home to the ECS program. “We want to provide a cohesive program with a lot of advising and flexibility that allows for people to shape their studies,” Ben-Porath says.

Recipients are selected on the basis of academic excellence, leadership qualities, and ambassadorial skills to promote mutual understanding between the United States and Israel.

Read more at Penn GSE.