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MaryEllen McGuire: To Afghanistan Via TC and Washington

MaryEllen McGuire was employed as a legislative assistant to Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware late last year when she received a call from Steven Bourke, Director of Research at the Center for International Conflict Resolution (CICR) at Columbia. "We're going to Afghanistan to look at their education system," he said. "We'd like you to join us."

McGuire, a 2002 TC graduate, had never been to Afghanistan, but CICR couldn't have made a more logical choice -- an experienced classroom teacher with an insider's view of education policy formation. Over the past decade, McGuire has had a role in a broad array of education initiatives for two U.S. senators and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, and also taught fifth and sixth grades in Connecticut schools.

"The trip was "a real eye-opener" for McGuire. Despite challenging teaching conditions, she says, "I was incredibly impressed with the educators we met -- their enthusiasm, their pride in their work, the pleasure they took in talking about their students. Even the veterans spoke with the excitement and eagerness of first-year teachers."

Although her first love is education policy, McGuire left her job as an aide to a Connecticut state legislator in 1993 to accept a teaching position in the East Hartford public school system.

"I've always loved children and had thought about being a teacher for a long time," she recalls. "Ultimately, I decided to stay with education policy. But I felt a classroom experience was crucial if I wanted to truly understand the issues facing teachers, students and municipalities." McGuire taught for four years in both East Hartford and Westport, Connecticut schools. "I loved it," she says. "But I felt a pull to get back to the policy world, where I felt I could make the most meaningful contribution. So many of society's problems come down to the opportunity -- or the lack of opportunity -- to have a quality education." With a mix of sadness and excitement, she left teaching to enroll in a masters program at TC.

McGuire's class readings exposed her to Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd's contributions to childcare and education reform. "I really admired his priorities and thought it would be great to work with him," she says. "It didn't hurt that he was my home state senator and a like-minded Democrat."

With the aid of her TC advisor, Robert Crain, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Education, McGuire was taken on as a fellow, and later a staff member, in Senator Dodd's Washington office. While working for Senator Dodd she participated in bill drafting work groups, wrote floor statements and composed bill resolutions on a variety of matters including teacher training and access to education technology.

McGuire left Dodd's office in 1998 to begin work in the White House with First Lady Hillary Clinton. "I'd specifically wanted to work for Mrs. Clinton because of her interest in education and children," McGuire says. As part of the Deputy Chief's staff, McGuire focused primarily on domestic issues, collaborating with various agencies and organizations in planning conferences related to philanthropy and teens. Additionally, she put together a number of events on foster care and adoption. McGuire returned to TC in 2000 to continue her graduate work, receiving a Doctorate in Politics and Education last year.

"I think the most valuable thing I gained from my experience at TC was learning how be a critical thinker," she says. "I took a class in evaluation in my first year and recall wishing that I'd taken such a course prior to actually teaching. It would have helped me approach issues and problems -- both inside and outside the classroom -- more strategically. It would have made me a better educator."

Since 2002, McGuire has been a legislative assistant for Senator Biden, briefing him on issues related to social policy and education. "I was working for the Senator last fall when the Afghan trip came up," she says. "He'd visited Afghanistan himself early in 2002 and was very excited about my going. So much of the news coming out of Afghanistan has been military-related, he felt this would be a great opportunity to see what was happening on the ground there in terms of education."

McGuire came away with a strong feeling that "we need to maintain a presence in Afghanistan -- certainly to get teachers what they need. But to do that we need to understand what they need." Which, she might have added, is what education policy is all about.

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