At the age of 4, Sumun Pendakur played dress up in her father’s academic regalia with dreams of someday wearing her own doctoral robe.
Those dreams came true when Pendakur received a Doctor of Education from the USC Rossier School of Education along with a merit award for her dissertation.
At USC Rossier’s doctoral Commencement ceremony on May 12, Pendakur – who has worked for nearly seven years as the director of USC Asian Pacific American Student Services – was presented with the Dissertation of the Year Award for “The Search for Transformative Agents: The Counter-Institutional Positioning of Faculty and Staff at an Elite University.”
This was the capstone to an educational journey that included earning a bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University in women’s studies and history, and a master’s degree in higher education administration from the University of Michigan.
“I got an e-mail saying there were many qualified nominees and amazing nominations, but I won,” she said. “I thought it was spam, so I made my husband read it three times. I was on top of the world. As a woman of color, I never wanted there to be any barrier holding me back. Education is one thing no one can ever take away from us.”
USC Rossier professors anonymously nominate students for the award, and a committee selects the winner.
Reynaldo Baca, professor and dissertation chair at USC Rossier, expected Pendakur’s 251-page dissertation to win.
“I would’ve been very disappointed if she hadn’t gotten the award,” he said. “It’s a dissertation that comes up once or twice in a lifetime for a professor. Not often do we find something that can advance the field. I thought she did and will do more. Her dissertation can lay the foundation for a book.”
Pendakur’s qualitative study focused on empowerment social capital theory, examining both institutional and empowerment agents in elite universities.
After students at an anonymous elite university identified faculty and staff they felt were empowerment agents, Pendakur selected six subjects to interview. She offered several findings, including information about the benefits of empowerment agents for low-income, first-generation or students of color.
“For me, the study ended up being deeply personal,” she said. “There were personal ‘aha’ moments about the kind of change agent I want to be and the kind of transformation I care about in institutions. Hearing from people who are on the ground doing this incredible work and navigating some pretty tough pathways – I found that extremely rewarding, renewing and reinvigorating.”
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