Maria Jimenez’s (2011, education administration, masters) passion for the field of special education began at a young age — although it took her a while to connect the dots.
“When I started school, I had a challenge with reading. My parents were Hispanic so the school assumed I wasn’t getting the extra help I needed at home. One teacher began working with me one-on-one in her spare time. She wasn’t getting paid, but she knew my reading struggles were more than surface level. I didn’t find out until college that I was dyslexic,” Jimenez says. “My teacher had a background in special education and used it to help me.”
This pivotal experience put Jimenez on a path she would continue throughout her professional career, ultimately leading her to the College of Education at the University of South Carolina where faculty members Mitchell Yell, Kathleen Marshall and Susan Bon created Project Promote to provide grant-funded doctoral education to students studying special education administration.
“For many years, I admired Dr. Yell’s work in special education law,” Jimenez says. “I previously attended his workshops. He is a true rock star in the field, and working with him has been so amazing. His depth of knowledge makes difficult concepts easy to understand.”
When the opportunity arrived for Jimenez to attend graduate school with her mentors and have it fully funded, she jumped. She believes participation in Project Promote has been her best professional gift.
“Project Promote allows me to attend school part time,” Jimenez says. “It’s truly a gift because all of the students in our program hold leadership positions in their districts and schools. I’m a mom of two, and I work full time as the Special Education Coordinator for 17 schools in Lexington School District One. Our professors are really understanding and want us to be on their level. They do what they can to help us succeed.”
The flexible nature of the program attracts a wide variety of students. This diversity brings value to the program as they collaborate and share their different strengths. They become a unique, small family within the college.
“We take all of our courses together and work with one another on our dissertation. We represent many different school districts and each bring a variety of experiences to the classroom. Our program is very relationship based. We constantly bounce ideas off each other and collaborate in powerful ways,” Jimenez says.
She is most excited about the advocacy component of the program. Jimenez worked with grassroots organizations and carried those experiences all the way to Washington, D.C., where each year a group of the doctoral students attends the Special Education Legislative Summit. The group meets with thought leaders such as the Executive Director of Research for the Office of Special Education and learns best practices for advocating for their students with local and national government.
“We absorb so much information and put it to use by lobbying. Sometimes we have to get a little personal — and that was hard for me,” Jimenez says. “But framed by advocacy, sharing my story gave me a real purpose. It’s awesome to still be learning and changing at this time in my career.”
Jimenez saw the importance of advocacy firsthand at a young age. Her grandfather took her to visit her aunt. While Jimenez thought she was on the way to a school, she was actually visiting an institution.
“I still remember how it looked and smelled. Everyone seemed so unhappy. Seeing how uninviting her environment was really challenged me to advocate for those around me and my students. We know so much more now about students’ social-emotional health and how schooling contributes to these areas,” Jimenez says. “I’ve carried this passion with me my whole life, it just took me a while to figure out how the pieces connected together.”
Not only has Project Promote brought purpose to Jimenez’s life, but it has given her valuable resources that are directly applicable to her daily job. The articles, websites and blogs shared by her professors are immediately useful in her field.
“These tools help us research and find more efficient ways to be effective in our careers. People we value and respect are giving us access to research-based practices that are helpful in real time,” Jimenez says.
Jimenez cites learning how to navigate the law library as one of the hands-on and useful skills that has already made her more confident at work. The case studies she reads for class make her day-to-day life easier.
“My favorite class so far has been the law class. We work together to navigate the process of amending a law that relates to our advocacy efforts,” Jimenez says. “Processes like this are ongoing and help us solve real problems on a local, school, state and national level.”
Jimenez credits her father for her lifelong love of learning. He emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States at age 19.
“He always had very strong beliefs about education,” Jimenez says. “His motivation and focus on continued growth never stopped. He was always learning and reading. This program really gives me the opportunity to continue that passion and show how important education is to my own family.”
Jimenez’s education will last beyond her doctoral degree. She hopes to conduct research on students’ social-emotional and mental health as it relates to the pandemic and the chaos students have lived through. She wants to understand how policy impacts these areas.
“Although my journey in school started off rocky, my learning disability helped me to understand what my students are facing. I am now studying in a place with like-minded individuals who are passionate about their students and want to be that teacher that helps them succeed,” Jimenez says.
About Project Promote:
Project Promote is a leadership training grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The five-year grant was written by College of Education faculty members Mitchell Yell, Kathleen Marshall and Susan Bon. Project Promote funds 13 doctoral students in the special education administration doctoral program with emphasis on policy, advocacy and legal literacy. The grant also provides financial support for students to attend conferences and participate in the Special Education Legislative Summit held in Washington, D.C. each July.