Portrait of Magnolia Clayton '23. Photo by Patrick Montero.

What They Learned: Magnolia Clayton ’23

The independent major in Education Studies explored how education has functioned as promise, oppression, hope, and liberation in her own life, which invoked many ideas from scholars who have influenced how she sees education as a tool for liberating practice.

A degree from Haverford College has had a major impact on Magnolia Clayton. A native of Vevay, Indiana, she designed an independent major in Education Studies (with a concentration in Peace, Justice, and Human Rights) and chose a senior thesis topic that was close to her heart.

“I was interested in pursuing this project because of how greatly access to quality education has positively impacted my life,” Clayton said. “This thesis was a way for me to take a deep dive into the work I’ve completed over the last four years in my independent major, stepping away from Haverford with comprehensive documentation of my most important experiences, reflections, and questions regarding accessible and equitable education.”

She explored how education has functioned as promise, oppression, hope, and liberation in her own life, which invoked many ideas from scholars who have influenced how she sees education as a tool for liberating practice.

“My thesis feels like a genuine representation of my academic and personal journey through the Bi-Co,” Clayton said. “As a First-Generation, Low Income (FGLI) student, I sometimes forget how many significant accomplishments I have achieved because I’m always focused on accomplishing my next thing, never looking backwards. This thesis reminds me where I’ve been and inspires me to move forward creating spaces for others to experience the power of liberating education.”

Most importantly, she says, her thesis explores how her independent-major journey, not just the content she learned within it, has greatly prepared her for interdisciplinary, complex, growth-oriented work post-graduation.

“Through reflection and research, my thesis helped me concentrate on my last four years of study. I can now confidently say I have an area of research that excites me, is meaningful to me, and that I wish to return to in the very near future. Instead of leaving my undergraduate career feeling burnt out and finished with academics, I feel like I’m just getting started. In the next year or two I plan to attend graduate school for a program within international educational development or asylum and refugee law, but for now, I am currently searching for a job that will allow me to explore another small piece of my ever-emerging interests and curiosities about how education best functions as liberating practice.”

Clayton believes that the purpose of education is to inform, inspire, and equip people with the tools they need to immerse themselves in subject areas they are interested in; out of necessity or pure curiosity figure out their stake in those areas; then bring their dreams within their chosen subject areas to fruition. Her thesis helped her better understand what that can mean. “Education is only accomplishing its true purpose when it functions as liberating practice. However, complex systems of inequity and inaccessibility, both inside and outside of schools, make it easy for education to function as an oppressive force. My biggest takeaway from my thesis project, and something I know will inform my future academic research and vocational work, is that authentic, growth-oriented relationships and consistent, critical self-reflection encourage education to function as liberating practice amidst these oppressive systems.”

Her thesis advisors were professors Alison Cook-Sather and Kristin Lindgren. “Both Alison and Kristin were extremely helpful and influential throughout my entire thesis project—continuously affirming it was okay for me to write a thesis that looked different from traditional Haverford theses,” says Clayton. “Alison’s past and ongoing research in student-teacher partnerships resulted in rich, fulfilling conversations during our bi-weekly check ins. Kristen’s expertise in disability studies reminded me to think about the accessibility and equity pieces of my education major. Furthermore, during times of frustration and struggle, she encouraged me to give myself grace as someone with a chronic illness engaging in long, energy-consuming research. I truly feel like I could not have had a better pair of thesis advisors.”  

Clayton says the project reminds her that both teaching and assessment of educational impact should not have to fit into traditional academic molds to be seen as legitimate. “Unexpected, out-of-the-box thinking is what we need to solve current, complex world issues,” she concludes, “so the way we teach and assess needs to encourage students to push back, question, and, sometimes, to refuse to participate in exclusionary, oppressive educational systems that inhibit the pursuit of education as liberating practice. When we lean into teaching and learning in this way, education becomes dynamic and exciting, much like it was for all of us when we first started learning about the world as children. I truly believe encouraging this child-like excitement and curiosity within education brings joy and levity to any space it is practiced, and that is so needed in today’s world.”

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.