By Abby Weingarten
The more Ariel Powell ’15 learns about Florida’s educational system, the more she finds aspects of public policies that are disadvantaging black students. And she is determined to change that.
It was a topic she passionately began researching while writing her thesis last year at New College (Re-Examining the Education System: Policy Recommendations for Florida Education Reform, K-12). She is now working toward a doctoral dissertation with a similar slant.
“As a career, I really want to produce policy and make changes to the current system, and my research feeds into everything that’s happening in the world right now,” Powell said, referring to the civil rights movement that is erupting globally. “If there’s inequality in the education system, it affects everything else; it’s all interconnected. I want to put forth policy recommendations that change how certain people are treated in our society, because there’s a lot that needs to be done.”
Powell’s interest in this topic began to build on a personal level, when she attended middle school in a low-income section of Miami-Dade County and witnessed inequalities in education firsthand (including a lack of access to materials, programs and technology). She went on to earn a Homeland Security College Credit Certificate from Miami-Dade College in 2015, and studied political science/public policy before graduating from New College in 2019. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Affairs at Florida International University.
“Through my research on education, I’ve learned that some of the policies put forth have had a terrible effect on some of the neighborhoods throughout our state,” Powell said. “One of the things I mentioned in my New College thesis was the Guardian Program, and that’s going to be the focus of my dissertation. I didn’t realize how poorly put into place that program was, and how it’s going to impact so many lives in a negative way for so many years.”
The Guardian Program, which was established in 2018 through the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, is now in place in 42 counties throughout Florida. Schools are equipped with armed personnel who aid in the prevention or abatement of active assailant incidents. And this option to have School Resource Officers (SROs) in the schools can be problematic in multiple ways (Powell is currently determining just how many).
Finding the flaws in public policy was a skill Powell honed at New College. She learned to think critically, and expanded her academic perspective by studying in other parts of the country as part of her New College curriculum.
She completed a semester at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, helping analyze policy proposals within the Florida legislature. She interned with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, managing databases about ongoing and closed cases in the homicide department. She also attended Virginia State University (VSU), where she studied under Political Science Professor Wes Bellamy, Ph.D. (the author of Monumental: It Was Never About a Statue, as well as a city councilman in Charlottesville, Virginia).
While Powell was studying in classes like Bellamy’s, her New College professors (namely Queen Zabriskie, Ph.D.;Keith Fitzgerald, Ph.D. and Barbara Hicks, Ph.D.) were encouraging her every step of the way. This support meant the world to Powell, who often struggled with belonging while on the New College campus.
“Sometimes, at New College, I was the only black person in a class. Going to other colleges for a couple semesters was an opportunity for me to get away and recharge,” Powell said. “But, whenever I came back, it also showed me why I had wanted a liberal arts education to begin with. When I was at FSU, I was in a class with 300 people. I knew I preferred a smaller classroom than a huge auditorium, even if I had to sacrifice my comfortableness with being the only person of color in class.”
When Powell studied at VSU, her experience in Bellamy’s class was so transformative that she facilitated his visit to New College during Black History Month (BHM). At a Black Literature Read-In in February 2019, Bellamy spoke to both New College and Booker High School students about the attacks by white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017 and discussed his efforts to remove confederate statues.
“What I learned from Dr. Bellamy was life-changing. His talks were amazing. I knew I had to bring him to New College,” Powell said. “I felt he represented a more radical and outspoken part of being black that is generally overlooked.”
Powell found her own way to be outspoken at New College, too—through her BHM programming and her membership in the Black Student Union (BSU). In the classroom, Professor Zabriskie introduced her to black thought, and Professor Fitzgerald furthered Powell’s enthusiasm for changing public policy (validating her concerns about the system often being skewed against black people).
Though the New College campus lacked the diversity Powell craved, and she often felt outnumbered, she was still able to find her voice. And that voice continues to get louder and stronger.
“My professors encouraged this questioning of why and how. They made us think in our classes, and made us talk with each other about our experiences and how to relate them with what was going on in the world,” Powell said. “That forced me to think critically about what I was doing and what impact I wanted to make in my life. I know I wouldn’t be where I am now without that.”
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.