In 25 years as a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations, Dr. Kathleen Casey has hooded more than 50 PhD graduates.
“Everybody remembers me because my students walk across the stage so many times at commencement,” Casey says. “That’s where my work is manifest. In case anybody didn’t know what I was doing with my time, there it is.”
But the spring 2014 commencement will be her last. Casey, who is retiring, will hood the Rev. Dr. Otto Harris and then move on, leaving her legacy to her former students, many of whom are now professors.
“I have worked with so many wonderful students. They’ve had life experiences and they work hard. Their dissertations are one of the ways they make sense of the world, and they want to make that world a better place, ” she says, seated in her living room across from a framed print her co-workers gave her as a retirement gift. It’s a Japanese woodcut called “Tree of Dreams”.
Casey’s dreams are summed up in the doctoral students she has coached and mentored over the years. She remembers the blood, sweat and tears that went into each dissertation. A study of first-generation high school graduates in a cotton mill village. Studies of Liberian refugee women and rural women art educators. Even a study of teaching disenfranchised students through wrestling.
To Dr. Svi Shapiro, Casey’s colleague in Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations, her commitment to diversity and educational opportunity stood out. She was a catalyst for many African Americans, especially women, to pursue doctoral studies, Shapiro says.
“She encouraged these students to use their doctoral studies and dissertations to critically explore and reflect on their rich, but often difficult, educational, cultural, religious and communal histories and experiences. The body of work that developed under her tutelage was often transformative, both personally and professionally, for students. Kathleen, I believe, saw her work with students as both educational and political — political in the broader sense of contributing to a greater awareness of the continuing struggle for social justice in this country. In this she sought to create a space for students of color to see history as both one of struggle but also of hope for social progress and change.”
Casey brought an innovative style of research to UNCG’s School of Education when she was hired. Called narrative research, it draws on life stories to examine social and educational issues.
“You are only allowed to ask one question: ‘Tell me the story of your life,’” she says, “and I’ve never heard a boring life story.”
Her own life story began in New York. It took her to England and Nigeria, then back to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for her PhD.
And Casey’s story is far from over. She remains a busy social activist, sits on the board of Beloved Community Center and attends Faith Community Church.
“I love UNCG, but I also love Greensboro,” she says. “My retirement project is going to be serving on the Interim Civilian Police Review Committee.”