Doctoral student earning joint degree looking forward to multiple career options

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Vanessa Miller pulled up to the intersection of law and education — metaphorically speaking, at least — and opted to take the turn toward Penn State for both career quests.

Miller's drive toward a joint doctoral degree from the College of Education and a juris doctorate from Penn State Law was the beginning of the final phase of an academic journey to find out who she was. And the Miami native and 2015 graduate of Teachers College at Columbia University said the dual discovery of philosophy of education and law is more than adequately answering that personal query.

"I think because the joint program can take me so many directions, to pick one is really difficult,'' said Miller, who this semester began an externship with the Office of General Counsel at Penn State. "For example, a position like a university attorney would be a fascinating job to combine both the legal components in conjunction with the educational considerations on campus.”

"Hopefully I'd like to go into academia," Miller added. "A professor once told me the things you want to study will be there for a while. Issues of race and gender on campus, whether students are getting their needs met, that will be there for a while. What won't be here for a while are jobs in which you can practice and apply the research."

She said the joint program has set her up to have the foundational knowledge to do the things she wants to do. "I really think the faculty and the interdisciplinary approach that both the law school and the College of Ed are taking … they're supporting me in every realm," Miller said. "It's not just 'here is case law' or 'here are theories,' but it's 'here's how you can go put that into practice' with networking connections or ability to write papers … go to panels. I think Penn State's a really good place to do that; I'm very happy here."

Now in her third year — the first all law, the second all education and the third a mixture of the two – Miller, 27, anticipates completion in 2020 or 2021, depending on the length of her research interest.

At the moment, that thought process is the First Amendment and race and gender. "However, I just presented at a conference in San Diego that had very little to do with the First Amendment; it was on educational malpractice on whether schools could be held liable for not providing a quality education as provided by the mission or the student handbook or whatever it may be," she said.

Miller said what has fascinated her is that the judiciary system has been blocking these cases because of academic discretion. "But students keep coming forward and are saying 'I'm not getting what I was promised.' A lot of student-athletes — mostly student-athletes — and I think this idea of fundamental fairness is at play," said Miller. "For me, that's where the philosophical questions come in and whose duty is it to educate and what does it mean to educate someone?"

In order to make her final choice of her research interest, she will continue to present at various conferences, take assorted classes and find faculty members who align with her interest. "I'm starting to figure it out a little bit more now," Miller said. "I think I want to do that route first and do a little bit of a practice, whether it be at a university or a civil rights organization, and then come back to do research and teaching."

She said her attraction to philosophy and the civil rights movement stems from growing up in a Cuban-American family in Miami. She earned a bachelor's in philosophy from the University of Florida prior to attending Columbia and during that time worked with the Civil Rights Bureau in the New York attorney general's office.

“The connection for me, the philosophical underpinnings of justice to the legal realms of how it's played out, has fueled my passion. It's so many things put into one, but this idea that equality can be achieved … I think one day it will be and I think it will be through legal matters, and that's why I did the joint program so I can have a background in the legal and educational domain.''

Toward that end, Miller took HI ED 597, Diversity and Inclusivity. "I'm really happy the College of Education added this course, not only as a course in itself but as a requirement because if we want to be able to address all of our students on campus, we have to really understand the nature of our students," she said. "Who they are and how to best serve them and understand that underrepresented students don't have the voice that they always should have … to understand the diverse nature of our institution from a theoretical perspective and also a practical perspective."

Miller's focus on student development allows her to understand how students' needs are being met both legally and educationally. "It's fun for me to see how organizational theory is applied to educational settings whereas in the law, universities are treated more like businesses," she said.

The joint degree can pull a student in dual directions as well. Miller recently won Penn State Law's Student Leader Award even though she was a higher education student at the time. The award, given to a student leader at the law school who has had a significant impact on the law student body or to the law school in general, was awarded to Miller for a number of reasons.

She is involved with the Latino/a Law Student Association, which she petitioned to change to its current status of Latinx Law Student Association to be more gender inclusive, and she was the Public Interest Law Fund (PILF) auction chairman. She chaired an auction committee that raised $22,000 for a scholarship fund for students involved in public interest.

“Students in public interest don't get funded,” Miller said, “yet they do significant work. All of the money raised from the auction gets directed to a fellowship where students can apply and get funding for the summer if they're doing public interest work. As a student who's interested in public interest, I fell in love with the organization," she said.

Her growing interest in educational malpractice would include using both degrees and, after a recent presentation, now stands as a potential dissertation topic. "The paper was about whether universities are failing students, in particular student-athletes, only because most of the educational malpractice cases were academic fraud cases that had been brought up in public institutions for student-athletes," Miller said.

"Some of these students in these cases, although they were admitted to the university, their test scores were in the bottom fifth percentile, they maintained a C or D average and when they graduated from high school they had the reading comprehension of a seventh-grader. So, is it incumbent on a university to provide an adequate education, whether it be to a student-athlete, whether it be to a business student or a history student and, if so, what does it look like?"

She said some students are coming back and alleging that a university is not providing the type of education they were thinking about. "You can't pinpoint one person at a university and say it's your fault," Miller said. "But I think with some of the instances with student-athletes, maybe there's a little bit more at play, especially after the University of North Carolina case and the allegations of academic fraud."

Miller said these race and education issues, many of which helped develop who she is, are leading her to do what she can to make sure others have an opportunity.

"It would not be right if I were able to benefit tremendously from something and then not be able to advocate on someone else's behalf to have the same opportunity. I just advocate for the things I care about a lot and hopefully it will resonate with someone else," she said.

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Last Updated January 16, 2018