Lisa Davenport, doctorate in educational leadership, and Romina “Mina” Wilson, master’s degree in instructional design and technology, have been named the outstanding students for the James R. Watson & Judy Rodriguez Watson College of Education’s Class of 2024.

Davenport currently teaches English as a second language to adult immigrants in the Coachella Valley at the College of the Desert, and holds a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), which she completed in 2019. A graduate of the University of Puget Sound in Washington, she became an educator after working in business and raising a daughter. By the time her daughter had become a college student and she and her husband had moved to the Coachella Valley, “I decided that it was time for me to go back to college, as well and do something that I really loved, something that I was passionate about.”

At about the same time, she saw the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiment. “I was furious about it because I'm in the Coachella Valley with such a high concentration of immigrants who live here,” Davenport said. “I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I had taught English as a second language in Japan, and I loved it. I started thinking, maybe I want to do that again. I started Googling, and I found out that Cal State San Bernardino had a master's in TESOL program.”

Davenport said the late Lynne Diaz-Ricco, who developed the graduate TESOL program and who she counts as an inspiration, suggested that she pursue a doctorate in education. “Dr. Lynne dedicated her life to teaching teachers how to instruct English learners through her research and writing and to building CSUSB’s MA-TESOL program.”

It was also during the master’s program that she met Allison Airhart, her first instructor, who chairs the non-credit programs at the School of Communications and Humanities at the College of the Desert. It was in Airhart’s class that Davenport did her field work.

Initially, Davenport didn’t think she belonged in CSUSB’s Ed.D. in educational leadership program. Most of her cohort had been teaching for some time, while she, at the point, had been teaching for two years.

“I was really scared, and I didn't know if I could do it,” she said. “We were immediately put into researcher mode, where we learned how to dissect research articles and really focus on the areas that we were interested in. At the time, I was saying, ‘I want to do something related to English learners and literacy.’ I was able to begin learning what it meant to be a researcher and to fine tune what it was that I was interested in. I was so grateful that as we went along in our classes, that was a real common theme. What are you interested in? What are your research interests? That allowed me to create my dissertation topic that was near and dear to my heart.”

And that dissertation, born of her passion to help English learners, became “The Most Important Voices in the Room: Understanding the Academic Needs of US-Educated Latino English Learners in Higher Education.” The dissertation “examines the transitions of US-ELs from high school to community college in the years since the implementation of California Assembly Bills 705 and 1705 and the COVID-19 pandemic,” the abstract reads. “The study provides recommendations from the student participants on best practices to support US-ELs in community college. It also provides recommendations for policy changes at the state level.”

The bottom line, Davenport said, is to create programs for English learners in which their “cultural assets, their linguistic abilities, their cultural backgrounds, their social assets, the things that these students have when they come into community college” are protected and valued – not seen as hinderances as they learn to master another language. “We need to provide trust, and we need to provide linguistic security,” she said. “We need to make students feel safe being a second language learner, not sitting in the background, afraid to raise their hand, afraid to speak up, afraid to make a mistake.”

For now, Davenport plans to continue teaching English learners, as well as do more research in the field. Down the line, perhaps, she wants to be able to teach other educators to become more effective in helping students master English in a supportive way.

Of her time at CSUSB and in the Ed.D. program, she said, “It was truly transformational for me. I'm not the person that I walked in as. It really changes you. One of the things we learn in Dr. (Becky) Sumbera’s class is about transformational leadership and how we as leaders can transform programs or departments or other people. Be positively transformational. That's what the EDD program was for me. It was transformational because it turned me into a social justice educator, a social justice leader, a socially just person, a socially just human. At the end of the day, we all bleed red, and we all look the same on our X-rays, but we don't live in a socially just country, and we don't have socially just educational systems. How can we, as educational leaders, fight for those things? That's what I was able to learn through this work.”

Wilson is an immigrant from the Philippines, a graduate of the University of the Philippines in the Visayas. As the COVID-19 pandemic eased, she said she was “hungry to learn and came across an info session for Instructional Design and Technology, which I felt was very much in alignment with what I wanted to pursue, career-wise. When I spoke to the IDT program coordinator, my thoughts were confirmed and the rest is history, so to speak.”

By then, she and her family had relocated to the High Desert. That the IDT program offered classes online was a major asset, Wilson said. “Attending classes online and asynchronously from the comfort of my home has been invaluable as it minimizes disruption to my daily responsibilities of running the household and caring for my family,” she said. “Further, not having geographical constraints has opened up a world of intellectual pursuits, giving me time and space to explore my interests fully.

“CSUSB has played a crucial role in defining my future and empowering a full-time homemaker like myself to reach my academic and professional goals,” Wilson said.

It was a family crisis that sharpened her research focus. In the spring of 2023, her husband had an emergency while working in San Diego, which necessitated her making the six-hour (each way) drive for about a week while caring for her two children and juggling classwork. In the chaos, Wilson said, “an unexpected opportunity presented itself when I came across a podcast discussing the potential and implications of ChatGPT in our daily lives. This thought-provoking topic sparked my interest, and I saw it as a perfect subject for my instructional design and research projects.

“This serendipitous turn of events, which occurred during a challenging time, became a significant turning point in my MA in IDT journey, cementing my passion for the field and motivating me to pursue it further,” she said.

With her research focused on generative artificial intelligence and ChatGPT, and with the encouragement of her professors and faculty mentors, Eun-Ok Baek (the IDT program coordinator) and Pauline Salim Muljana, she wrote a paper, “Boon or Bane: An Inquiry into the Use of Generative AI (Artificial Intelligence) and its Implications in Education,” that was presented at an international conference and at the 2024 Watson College of Education Graduate Symposium, as well as published in an educational journal.

Many have inspired Wilson on her academic journey. “I came to America as an adult and lived with relatives who took me in when I had to start from scratch,” she said. “My husband and kids inspire me to do better every day so I can show them that age and living circumstance is not a hindrance to striving for higher knowledge. My mother and special-needs brother inspire me to quietly endure the struggles of being an immigrant to be able to better myself and to help others along the way. My teacher, Dr. Baek, inspires me with her commitment to her students and the institution by finding opportunities to showcase student research and by encouraging us to do great work.”

Now that she’s completed her master’s degree, Wilson said she is looking forward to continuing her academic career. She plans to apply to doctorate programs in the fall in the field of learning and instructional design or a related area. She also said she will continue working with her faculty mentors to further her research on generative AI and its implications in education.