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Dissertation Examines Maya Education in Postcolonial Belize

Jenny Pettit wearing dean's citation medal

March 15, 2023

Jenny Pettit (left) with Assistant Professor Derek Gottlieb at the fall 2022 Graduate Dean's Citation Ceremony.

Jenny Pettit went to Belize three times to conduct research for her dissertation “Educational Experiences that Influence the Upward Mobility of Maya Women in Belize,” which was awarded UNC’s Graduate Dean’s Citation for Outstanding Dissertation last year. Pettit identified three Maya women who were leaders in their communities and examined how their educational and other life experiences had influenced their success.

“A lot of indigenous research focuses on deficits and how people have been impacted by colonization. I wanted to highlight those who have persevered and their resiliency. These women, from different areas of Belize, have reinvented what it means to be Maya women today. They are big supporters and promoters of the Maya culture, but in a way that’s contemporary,” Pettit said.

A Boulder native, Pettit has been an educator in Colorado for more than 25 years. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado and a master’s degree from Lesley University. She recently returned to UNC for her doctorate in Educational Studies. The Online + Loveland Ed.D. program allowed her to continue her work as a K-12 social studies and secondary literacy coordinator at St. Vrain Valley Schools in Longmont, Colorado. Pettit also is an adjunct professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Pettit’s cohort of nine students was from all over the country. They met at the Loveland campus for a weekend every term and five days each summer.

“One reason I wanted to get an Ed.D. in education was I love teaching, and I want to teach more at the college level. My dissertation has helped me in understanding research and theory,” said Pettit.

Pettit originally planned to study classrooms in Cuba before she turned her attention to Belize, which achieved independence from Great Britain in 1981.

“Unfortunately, my international research was smack dab in the middle of COVID. There was a year and a half when the university was not allowing students to conduct international research. While I waited, I did a lot of reading, which added to my understanding of postcolonial theory,” Pettit said.

Due to high school expenses, among other cultural and political barriers, Maya girls in Belize typically go to school through sixth grade. Then they’ll leave school to help support their families or start their own families. The women in Pettit’s study overcame those obstacles, continued their studies and even attended universities.

“My hope is this work looking at postcolonial worlds, indigeneity and women will provide a more contemporary perspective,” Pettit said.

Pettit struggled with the dissertation but persevered with her committee’s support. Committee members included assistant professors Derek Gottlieb and Jean Kirshner, and Jenni Harding Middleton, professor of elementary education, all from the College of Education and Behavioral Science’s School of Teacher Education; and Kyle Anne Nelson, professor and chair from the College of Humanities and Social Science’s Sociology Department.

Pettit said Gottlieb asked a question that prompted a turning point in her research. He’d noticed the women in her study had become successful in a colonized world. They’d become proficient in English and continued their schooling, yet the things that helped them overcome obstacles made them more assimilated into that colonized world.

“The nuanced piece of these women becoming successful by doing what the colonizers wanted them to do was the piece I was missing. His questioning made me realize I couldn’t ignore that piece,” said Pettit.

Gottlieb said not being allowed to travel to collect her data was a barrier Pettit overcame.

“I can’t imagine her fortitude in keeping her interest level high and keeping momentum going on her project despite not being able to collect data for almost two years. But when restrictions were lifted it was like she didn’t miss a beat,” he said.

Gottlieb believes the dissertation could reach people who set the direction of educational policy in Belize. He recalled the response of fellow faculty during Pettit’s dissertation defense.

“There was so much excitement among these four faculty members who represented a broad set of perspectives,” he said.

Gottlieb sees Pettit’s example as a ray of hope for educational systems.

“Jenny is an absolute model of someone who is exceptional, but she is also not different than the kinds of educators we see in our local schools across the country, which is to say deeply passionate, committed to the project of education and committed to developing her skills to the fullest in the service of her community and her students,” said Gottlieb.

written by Brenda Gillen