New lecture series prompts Schreyer Scholars to think about social justice

Jeff Rice
October 23, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State Assistant Professor of Education Ashley Patterson acknowledges that the way she was raised isn’t better or worse than anyone else’s way, only that she sees the world through a certain lens, and that everyone’s lens is different.

“Difference, in and of itself, is not bad,” Patterson said. “It’s the way we decide to treat difference that can become problematic.”

Patterson urged a virtual audience of Schreyer Scholars, alumni and staff to assess their own identities and how they might view themselves and others differently to better advocate for social justice on Oct. 21 during a lecture titled, “Thinking & DOING Justice & Equity,” the first in a new series hosted by the Schreyer Honors College called “Inclusive Conversations.”

“We pick up messages as we grow up that help us understand and rate our different identities,” said Patterson, adding that those messages can come directly from families or peers or be more subtly absorbed through media, schools or religious organizations. “All of that creates our lens of experience, the view through which we see the world.”

Inclusive Conversations is a new lecture series launched by the Schreyer Honors College that seeks to engage the community in conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. The series features guest speakers who bring expertise and perspectives on issues of inequity, with the goal of identifying actions that will foster a community where everyone is welcomed, valued and supported. 

Patterson, the co-coordinator of the recently established Social Justice in Education minor and the 2020 winner of the College of Education’s Cotterill Leadership Enhancement Award, discussed her recent research, including analyses of the perspectives of underrepresented students who are studying abroad and the impact of experiential learning in public schools on the development of social justice identities.

“We’re doing a better job of understanding that social justice education is necessary,” she said. “We’re not doing as good of a job at telling people how to do this well.”

Attendees split into Zoom breakout groups and discussed how various messages or life experiences have influenced their identities. Some students shared how they’ve had to face gender stereotypes based on their field of study or extracurricular interests; others discussed learning how views of gender identity and sexuality differ across world cultures or how unseen disabilities, such as chronic illness, can create inequalities in education and society.

“By sharing stories from her fieldwork and her lived experiences, Dr. Patterson laid a foundation where attendees could hold a space to share their stories as well,” said Lynette Yarger, Schreyer Honors College assistant dean for equity and inclusion and assistant professor of information sciences and technology. “In my breakout session, a mix of faculty, staff and students discussed how differences in language, age and socioeconomic status lead to social judgements that marginalize entire groups of people. Dr. Patterson’s call for critical self-reflection about these differences is a powerful tool for challenging our biased judgements and adopting kinder, more equitable ways of thinking and behaving.”

Patterson shared two personal stories to illustrate the effects of these experiences. When she was a young girl, she fell and scraped her knee, and her mother told her “ladies don’t have scars on their legs.” She also recalled a time when one of her two young sons told her that boys need to have short hair and girls need to have long hair, prompting conversations about how anyone can wear their hair anyway they choose and that there are a lot of different ways for someone to be a "boy" or a "girl." She remembered in the moment, though, struggling to pinpoint how her son had even come to these restrictive notions of gender expression.

“Somewhere along the path, we had some type of experience that led us to believe and see the world the way we do,” Patterson said. “The only way we can start to figure out these things, and if they are problematic, interrupt them, is to do a lot of self-reflecting.”

Patterson said that it can be difficult to take a moment to stop and try to think more globally or re-think perspectives, as “we are all juggling 1,000 things every day,” but that it is essential.

“Thinking and doing have to be in marriage,” Patterson said. “I have to intentionally think about broadening what is my understanding of the world if I’m going to be able to do anything that is socially just.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total nearly 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses and represent 38 states and 27 countries. More than 15,000 Scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.

  • Ashley Patterson Inclusive Conversations Zoom slide
    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated October 23, 2020