Growing up in Kansas and venturing out for vacations only as far as the family car would reach, Molly Hamm-Rodríguez never dreamed she would find her calling in international education and the Dominican Republic.
Now, she is graduating with her doctorate in equity, bilingualism and biliteracy from the CU Boulder School of Education, and her groundbreaking research in the Dominican Republic has led to her work being honored with the CU Boulder School of Education’s 2023 Outstanding Dissertation Award.
As a master’s student at Teachers College at Columbia University, Hamm-Rodríguez worked with a nonprofit organization in the Dominican Republic, where she was hired after graduation to support hundreds of young people through a youth workforce development program. There, she discovered the program’s international sponsors, including the U.S. government, imagined a linear path between education, employment, and economic mobility in the Caribbean nation, but that was not what she saw working alongside the youth. As someone tasked with grant writing and program assessment, Hamm-Rodríguez was positioned to replicate the existing narrative rather than question it.
“I saw clearly how the local tourism industry constrained the jobs made available to youth and that, contrary to its promises, it could not resolve social inequalities,” she said. “It was undeniable that my own employment in a community where youth and their families struggled to make ends meet was part of the larger problem that I needed to question.
“I completed my dissertation research with these tensions at the forefront, and my work continues to be fueled by a desire to contest and deconstruct these inequities through ongoing collaborations with institutions in the Dominican Republic as well as through teaching, research, and service in my future job at the University of South Florida.”
Hamm-Rodríguez’s dissertation, “Re-Storying Paradise: Language, Imperial Formations of Tourism, and Youth Futures in the Dominican Republic,” focuses on the struggles of Black Dominican and Haitian youth who seek education and employment opportunities amidst the social stratifications generated by tourism in the island nation. Her research, weaving ethnographic methods and youth participatory action research, reveals how youth build solidarity across social difference and find commonalities in their struggles against anti-Blackness.
Hamm-Rodríguez’s innovative scholarship was awarded support of many highly competitive national fellowships and grants, including the National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, the Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in Linguistics, the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, the Philanthropic Educational Organization Scholar Award, and the Foreign Language Studies Fellowship for Haitian Creole.
Hamm-Rodríguez’s approach to multilingualism, with a focus on the Caribbean, is grounded in sociocultural and critical theories of language and literacy development, and her interdisciplinary scholarship will be influential in the field of educational inquiry and beyond.
One of Hamm-Rodríguez’s award nominators explained: “As an Afro-Dominican member of the academy, I have felt honored to have interacted with Molly, in whom I readily recognized an emerging scholar, and privileged to have been invited to participate on the dissertation committee,” said Almeida Jacqueline Toribio from the University of Texas Austin. “Her dissertation project is critical in situating the research squarely within Dominican institutions, instigating a thorough-going interrogation of the parallel prejudices of racial bias and standard language ideologies, which are perpetuated by the nation state and which prove particularly injurious to Dominican youth.
“I have been especially impressed by Molly’s abiding attentiveness to understanding and centering the lived experiences of minoritized youth and with her attendant dedication to supporting and uplifting these marginalized groups through proposals for programmatic interventions.”
Hamm-Rodríguez’s experience with youth in the Dominican Republic led her to seek a PhD in education to address her questions about education, society, and inequity. Now, she is leaving CU Boulder with a wealth of experiences, the ongoing support from her advisor, Mileidis Gort, and other faculty, and lifelong friendships from her doctoral cohort. However, Hamm-Rodríguez notes, she is graduating with even more questions than she started with—something she considers a good sign as a budding scholar.
“Graduating from CU Boulder does not represent an end but rather a beginning to me, as learning and unlearning is a lifelong journey,” she said. “Rather than leaving with a title, I know that I am leaving with new ways of thinking and being that I will continue to use for social change.”