Studying education in a broader context
Graduate School of Education program looks at sociological, economic effects on education

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs



Graduate student Kristen Ghodsee traveled to Bulgaria to research the country’s conversion to capitalism and its effect on women and education.

06 March 2001 | In the summer of 1990, the Iron Curtain was falling. As former communist countries celebrated their new-found freedom, graduate student Kristen Ghodsee was there to witness the euphoria.

“The optimism was very high,” said Ghodsee, a student in the Graduate School of Education’s Social and Cultural Studies in Education program. “Everyone was so happy; it was like a party everywhere you went.”

All that had changed, though, when Ghodsee returned eight years later for her graduate thesis research. Hope had faded. Economic chaos gripped the country. And the region’s education systems were ill-prepared to cope with the changes.

Bulgaria’s economic and social turmoil provided a good backdrop for Ghodsee’s focus on how education and labor markets intersect. As a Social and Cultural Studies in Education student, she and her classmates are encouraged to take a broad, cross-disciplinary look at issues that have direct implications on how people learn.

“You can’t understand schools and education unless you understand the broader social and cultural context in which they exist,” said Harley Shaiken, professor of education and one of Ghodsee’s faculty advisers. “Kristen has gone beneath the veneer to understand this context in Bulgaria, and her work touches on issues that are of concern in the United States and around the world.”

Students in the program draw on such fields as sociology, urban studies, anthropology, history and political science, as well as education, for their research.

Through these academic lenses, Ghodsee set her sights on Bulgaria’s educational system, which struggled to keep up in the country’s precarious conversion to capitalism.

“Under communism, employment was guaranteed,” she said. “With the conversion to labor markets, there were more people than jobs, so massive layoffs ensued.”

Women were particularly affected as white-collar jobs they traditionally held were given to men who had worked in the now-defunct industrial sector. As a result, female unemployment has dramatically increased — as high as 62 percent in some parts of the country.

“These women are highly educated, working in such fields as medicine, law and education before getting laid off,” she said. “Many of the younger women, who came of age in the 1990s, don’t bother with college because there are no jobs once they graduate.”

With limited job and educational opportunities, Ghodsee found that a number of Bulgarian women turned to mail-order bride companies in an attempt to address their financial woes. Thousands of women, she explains, have signed up with these companies online in the hopes of finding a husband in a country with better financial opportunities.

“These women are desperate for financial stability and are tired of struggling to pay bills, keep a roof over their head and put food on the table,” she said. “For them, becoming a mail-order bride is a way out.”

Though exact numbers are unavailable, it appears that many women have found new lives outside Bulgaria. They are among the nearly half-million people, aged 25 to 35, who left the country in the last decade.

Turning this situation around requires a change in Bulgaria’s educational structure, said Ghodsee. Women need training and professional development so they can move into more promising job sectors, such as tourism, which has increased since the fall of communism.

Ghodsee said she hopes her research will give decision-makers the tools needed to improve the education of women in Bulgaria. She has briefed the Peace Corps, the Department of Commerce and the American Embassy on her findings.

Ghodsee credits Berkeley’s unique Social and Cultural Studies in Education program with enabling her to take this kind of cross-disciplinary look at international education. Though accepted at Harvard and other top schools, she chose Berkeley because of this program.


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