In the following Q&A with New York University's Fabienne Doucet, we explore her personal journey as an immigrant researcher, the challenges she has overcome, and the remarkable contributions she has made to her field and to the United States as a whole.
Fabienne Doucet serves as the executive director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. She is also an associate professor of early childhood education and urban education in the department of teaching and learning at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, as well as an affiliated faculty member of the NYU Institute for Human Development and Social Change and Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
Born in Spain and raised in Haiti by her great aunt and uncle until she moved to the United States to live with her mother when she was 10, Doucet earned her bachelor’s degree in behavioral science from Messiah University, her master’s and doctorate in human development and family studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has received fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation.
She is not only the first woman to head the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and School Transformation, she is the first Black woman to head a research center at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
What inspired you to pursue a career in research, and how did you get interested in your current field of study?
When I was an undergraduate, I thought I was going to become a pediatrician. I very quickly realized science was not for me. This led to a crisis of identity and I had to figure out what to do. I sat down with the dean of students, Dorothy Gish. She asked me what I was passionate about. I told her children – that’s why I had wanted to be a pediatrician, so she suggested child development.
Messiah University had only a family studies major but it had a relationship with Temple University, where I was able to take child development courses, except for the one. That one I took with Professor Don Murk at Messiah. I loved his class and he invited me to be his research assistant. I thrived among the library stacks, carting around and studying books, pulling articles related to his research and updating the literature. I was having the time of my life and that’s when the seed was planted that this was something I wanted to do, that I was called to do.
Another significant moment was when I took a developmental psychology course with Temple Professor of Psychology Diane Scott-Jones in a giant lecture hall with hundreds of students. I was just riveted. At the end of the semester, she asked if I had considered going to graduate school. She invited me to go to Chicago with her and one of her graduate students to collect data in the field. I loved being in the field doing research as much as I had loved being in the library. Being an academic wasn’t something people in my family knew. Thanks to Drs. Gish, Murk, and Scott-Jones, and also Dr. Raeann Hamon at Messiah, I was introduced to a whole new world. If it weren’t for those professors, I would never have pursued this rewarding and impactful career.
They validated my interests and told me this is something I should pursue. So I have all of my amazing professors and mentors who steered me, pulled me in, guided me, and helped to open up possibilities to thank for my career.
Can you describe the research projects you are currently working on and how they contribute to your field?
I am working on four research projects at the moment. These include a study of how collective parent organizing relates to children’s learning and thriving, one on creating culturally responsive and sustaining summer learning programs, another on how preschool teachers make sense of children’s police play, and finally a study of Black and Latina early childhood educators in public schools looking at how they create anti-racist classrooms while also experiencing racism in their lives. These projects are all addressing pressing questions in education today, and I am sure they will contribute to our understanding of how we can create more equitable futures for young people.
How did the U.S. immigration system help or hinder your efforts to establish your career here?
I was fortunate because I had a green card from the time I was a child because my mom was a permanent resident. I delayed applying for U.S. citizenship because, until more recently, Haiti did not allow dual citizenship and the prospect of giving up my Haitian passport was difficult, very emotional. At age 26, I finally applied and received my U.S. citizenship because travel was simply too difficult.
"Having diverse perspectives allows us to tackle challenges from different angles."
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments so far in your research career?
While I am proud of specific publications and projects I have conducted, on balance what I value most is that I often get feedback from colleagues in the field and from educators that my work has made a real contribution. As researchers we want our work to matter. A lot of times it feels like only a small handful of people in your field are reading the articles and chapters we work on for so long, so knowing that I am producing work that has real practical implications and provides inspiration for educators is really meaningful to me.
Can you talk about any collaborative projects you have worked on with colleagues from other countries?
Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, I helped organize an international conference to look at the effects of the earthquake on the education of Haitian children. It was great to get experts on child development and education in fragile contexts from Haiti and other countries including as far away as Australia. I then conducted a small pilot study of educational reform in Haiti in partnership with other educators and co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Haitian Studies with Dr. Jody Dublin addressing the post-earthquake context in Haiti which was published in 2012.
What advice would you give to other immigrants who are pursuing careers in research or academia in the United States?
Recognize that your perspectives are really valuable and make an important contribution. In our different fields we use named languages and also different research languages. These are concepts that are really hard to translate. Having diverse perspectives allows us to tackle challenges from different angles. Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts and interpretations. They add so much to what we understand and what we know. It’s really easy to get tunnel vision and only see things from one perspective without those international lenses.
What do you see as the future of research in your field, and how do you plan to contribute to its progress and advancement?
In academia as a whole there is a growing recognition that research disconnected from communities and people who could benefit from that research is not getting us where we need to go. I am pleased to see more community partnership in research. Research that is grounded in the community allows everyone to gain so much insight. At NYU Metro Center, we prioritize research that is anti-racist, which I define in my framework as race- and racism-conscious, strengths-based, humanizing, co-constructed, and people- and community-centered.
We don’t want to produce scholarship that is just for other scholars to read. If the people whose experiences we are seeking to change are not able to benefit from our research, then we aren’t making the impact we want.
Any final words?
Mentoring others is a core part of everything I do and the most meaningful and fulfilling aspect of my work. We have opportunities as researchers who are women, immigrants, people of color, or any marginalized group, to mentor the next generation of researchers. When those young scholars can see themselves reflected in us, it benefits the field. As they say, “you can’t be what you can’t see”. I love being a possibility model for Black women and immigrant scholars and to nurture the next generation of researchers out of gratitude for those who made it possible for me to be here.