Cover Story

Redefining and unleashing doctoral excellence:
GSE's new PhD scholars, curriculum and community


Four GSE PhD students in Lockwood Library: Sara Kieffer, Najat Sghyar, Richard Williams and Ashfique Rizwan.
Four GSE PhD students in Lockwood Library: Sara Kieffer, Najat Sghyar, Richard Williams and Ashfique Rizwan.

A Facebook post changed Richard Williams’ life.

After spending over a decade as a special education teacher and district leader, Williams felt burnt out. He had led the special education division of Providence Public Schools through the COVID-19 pandemic and knew he needed to take a break from working in the field of education. While recovering and healing, he rediscovered the power of mindfulness and compassion, which perfectly aligned with his approach as a caring and empathetic educator.

Soon after, he stumbled upon a post on Facebook by LaGarrett King, associate professor of learning and instruction and director of UB’s Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education. King wrote in his post that he had funding available for new PhD students who had previously taught in K-12 education and would be interested in studying Black history education and racial literacy.

Williams wasn’t sure his research interests were an ideal match for the opportunity, but he felt compelled to reach out anyway. Following a series of conversations with King and other members of the GSE community, he found himself at UB’s doorsteps as an enrolled student in the curriculum, instruction and the science of learning PhD program—partly because he realized that this next step wasn't just about advancing his education and career. It was about joining a community that valued him.

“What I got from Dr. King when we first talked was this sense of, ‘We see you as a scholar, but we also see you as a person,’” said Williams.

Najat Sghyar, now a student in the language education and multilingualism PhD program, shares a similar story. Sghyar, who’s originally from Casablanca, Morocco, has pursued her studies and career as a writer and educator around the globe, with stops throughout France, and in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and the U.S.

Although she had achieved success as a highly sought-after French teacher, most recently at the French American School of Princeton in Princeton, New Jersey, she knew she wanted more. Sghyar wanted to change the world through education; she realized she had to advance her own education to do so. With a specific interest in multilingualism, a Google search brought her to GSE’s PhD program webpage. Her interests were piqued, but it wasn’t until she connected with Janina Brutt-Griffler, professor of learning and instruction, that she knew GSE was the right next step.

“When I read about my advisor’s background and talked to her, knowing that she’s also from Europe, I felt that she could totally understand me if I start speaking about French … She also is familiar with Arabic language policies. And so it was just perfect … a perfect fit,” she said.

Sghyar’s interactions during GSE’s PhD recruitment weekend in March 2023 only reaffirmed her feelings—with one moment, in particular, standing out in her memory: When GSE Dean and Professor Suzanne Rosenblith took the stage to address the prospective PhD recruits, she asked if any of the students already felt confident that they wanted to attend UB.

Without a second thought, Sghyar raised her hand. “I was looking at my hand, and I was like, ‘Am I really raising it?’ It just felt so natural,” she remembered. “I listened to [the dean], and I saw her vision. I knew automatically that it was the right thing.”

I listened to [the dean], and I saw her vision. I knew automatically that it was the right thing.

Najat Sghyar

Raising hands, committing to excellence

While working alongside GSE’s leadership team to plan the recruitment weekend, Rosenblith understood the importance of bringing students to campus to help them determine the next steps in their journeys. But her desire to attract exceptional students began long before that blustery recruitment weekend in March.

Since becoming dean in 2017, Rosenblith has led faculty and staff through the process of rearticulating the school’s mission and vision, and reviewing and refreshing GSE’s academic programs and curriculum.

A significant part of that vision and process? Ensuring that the student experience—both academic and co-curricular—is rigorous, supportive and engaging.

Rosenblith knew she could not achieve this vision without buy-in and innovation from GSE’s faculty. “I said from the very beginning that excellence was something that each program needed to define for itself,” she said.

She then asked the faculty: “What is an excellent outcome for your PhD program?”

“And then it was really about backward planning,” she said. “That meant looking at the curriculum, both in terms of the content and the amount … It meant looking at what the research sequence requirement was. It also meant, perhaps, in some ways, most importantly, looking at the co-curricular experiences—what are the sorts of activities that you would expect a student to engage in, in addition to their academic coursework and dissertation?”

We have redesigned our doctoral program to both prepare future faculty and policymakers and to unapologetically center race and equity in our curriculum.

Myles Faith

But this process wasn’t just about working with GSE’s already robust faculty. Rosenblith also established cluster hiring initiatives to recruit outstanding scholars interested in engaging in community-based research to provide students with the field-based activities and research opportunities they needed to excel in their fields. In 2022, 13 new faculty scholars with wide-ranging and forward-thinking research interests joined the school. In addition, eight new outstanding scholars joined GSE’s faculty this year, with more arrivals likely on the horizon.

Nathan J. Daun-Barnett, associate professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy (ELP), has witnessed firsthand the impact of GSE’s redefined mission, vision and goals: “Over the past six years, we have made significant changes to nearly every program we offer. We have dropped a few programs that no longer met the changing needs of educators, and we have developed new programs to appeal to the interests of undergraduate students interested in the intersection of sociology and education,” he said. “Excellence is a subjective target, but it should reflect a deep and sustaining commitment to identifying and addressing the most important problems facing educators today.

“Where our changes have aligned most with the mission of GSE is regarding the intentionality with which we infuse equity, diversity, justice and inclusion (EDJI) throughout the curriculum. Incidentally, this is also where educators at all levels face the greatest challenges,” Daun-Barnett added. “We have found that EDJI has been a consistent thread throughout the work of the faculty in ELP, but we had not formalized that emphasis in the curriculum as well as we could. For the past several years, we have found ways to bring equity into stronger focus through the courses we offer, the readings we require and the faculty who teach in our programs.”

Myles Faith, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology, has also seen these changes in his department. “We have redesigned our doctoral program to both prepare future faculty and policymakers and to unapologetically center race and equity in our curriculum,” he said.

A game-changing funding shift

Deeply reflecting upon GSE’s curriculum and program offerings was only one part of redefining and achieving excellence as a graduate school. Extending more competitive and comprehensive funding packages to exceptional students also became a priority.

Driven by a commitment to remove barriers for exceptional students, in 2022, GSE began offering opportunities for funding of up to $38,000 for full-time, on-campus PhD students. Twenty-three graduate assistantships, several with fellowship support, were awarded to newly admitted students for the 2023-24 academic year.

According to LaGarrett King, doctoral students often come to GSE with wide-ranging backgrounds and extensive career experience. “It is a huge step for these professionals to stop their careers and begin a PhD, which is scary because the process is different from K-12 education,” he said. “To provide funding that will allow them to study full time is the best way to attract and retain quality scholars and people.

“I tell you this,” King continued. “Richard [Williams] is a top-notch educator and scholar, and we probably would not have attracted him without this package.”

Similarly, Daun-Barnett believes that the improved funding for PhD students has been a game-changer, “particularly for first-generation college students, racially minoritized students and those from families with more modest means,” he said. “Our changes in GSE correspond with a number of changes across the university, focusing on doctoral excellence and raising the minimum stipend.

We saw what our students needed to be successful, and we found ways to make that possible for the PhD students we serve.

Nathan J. Daun-Barnett

“The inspiration [behind these changes] is essentially one of equity,” Daun-Barnett added. “We saw what our students needed to be successful, and we found ways to make that possible for the PhD students we serve.”

Sara Kieffer is one of those students. Originally from California, Kieffer—now a UB Presidential Fellow and higher education PhD program student—knew she wanted to pursue a doctoral degree but refused to do it at the expense of her family. “I was like, ‘OK, so if I get in, but I don’t get funding, we’re not going. I’m not going to do that to my husband and myself,” she shared. “[The funding] meant that I could really do this … It meant that we don’t have to worry.”

[The funding] meant that I could really do this … It meant that we don’t have to worry.

Sara Kieffer

Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Margaret Sallee, who serves as Kieffer’s doctoral advisor, acknowledges the significance of financial support. “Our peer institutions offer competitive financial packages … If we want to recruit and retain students like Sara, we need to match what they offer,” she said.

Ashfique Rizwan also began his doctoral education at GSE this fall. With academic and professional experience in pharmacy, public health and behavioral medicine, his career brought him around the world—and ultimately led him to apply and enroll in the counseling psychology and school psychology PhD program, due, in part, to the life-changing funding offer he received.

“Because of the scholarship, I’ll be able to pursue my dream. Without that, it would be really hard because I come from an international background, and there are a lot of challenges that international students have to go through,” Rizwan said. “The scholarship will help me to focus more on my studies and focus on my research work, and the graduate assistantship. It means everything and is helping me to actually work in the field that I love.”

A new generation of GSE student excellence

With a new academic year underway, faculty from across GSE report feeling energized by the opportunity to work with the new PhD students, each of whom brings a wealth of experiences to share from living around the world. “Broadly speaking, our new PhD students are coming to GSE from across the country and globe at far higher rates,” said Ryan Taughrin, GSE assistant dean for enrollment management.

Whether the new students are from the U.S. or abroad, they are committed to making positive changes in the communities they serve and are ready to explore crucial questions. “I have met with some of our incoming doctoral students and am so impressed by their extensive research experience, well-developed research interests and ideas, their integration of EDJI issues in everything they discuss, and their overall compassion and care,” said Amy Reynolds, professor and chair of the Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology.

In summary, this year’s incoming class of PhD students possess unparalleled global perspectives, a strong desire to positively affect educational spaces and communities, and a remarkable depth of interdisciplinary research interests and insights.

Meet four new PhD scholars joining GSE this year.

Scholar-activism fueled by global experiences

Najat Sghyar’s personal and educational journey is a testament to the transformative power of a global perspective. Her early years were shaped by the French education she received in Morocco. After high school, she ventured to France to pursue law studies but soon changed course. The Arab Spring—a wave of pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa beginning in 2010—brought a glimmer of hope and change to Morocco. It also ignited a spark within Sghyar to follow her passion—writing. With an unwavering love for the written word, she returned to Morocco in 2012 to begin her career as a journalist.

Navigating the challenging landscape of Moroccan journalism, where investigative reporting was fraught with danger, Sghyar honed her skills in covering business news and international events. However, the constraints of the profession led her to seek a new path: She left Morocco in 2014, initially drawn to Istanbul, Turkey, because of the city’s rich culture. There, she found an unexpected calling to teach French, a language associated with prestige and privilege in Turkey.

Headshot of Najat Sghyar.

Najat Sghyar

Help the earthquake victims in Morocco

On Sept. 8, 2023, a devastating earthquake hit Najat‘s home country of Morocco. More than 3,000 citizens perished, 5,000 were injured and 300,000 people lost their homes. Najat has launched a GoFundMe in memory of her late mother to provide necessary supplies to the people of Morocco before the first snow. Please consider giving.

Sghyar’s natural affinity for teaching became evident as she started with one family and soon had a full schedule of private French classes. She realized that she enjoyed teaching and had a gift for it. Language instruction became her purpose, and with the determination to excel in her newfound career, Sghyar pursued an education in French instruction at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris.

I want to change education back home. ... I realized I can be an activist today with my experience and my knowledge because academic research is the only way for me to be able to write freely and to have an impact.

Najat Sghyar

Her experiences in education evolved at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle at the Sorbonne’s campus in Abu Dhabi, where she served as a lecturer and her passion for teaching grew amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “I fell in love with the country. The UAE is such an advanced, beautiful, safe country,” she said. “Because of the pandemic, all I could do was study and work. For three years, I worked three jobs, filled my résumé, finished my master’s and wrote my thesis on French teaching in the UAE.”

Most recently, Sghyar’s journey led her to the U.S. as a teacher at the French American School of Princeton. Yet, the desire to create lasting change in education, particularly in Morocco, remained at the forefront of her mind, ultimately influencing her choice to continue her education.

“I want to change education back home. We have in Morocco major linguistic issues because we are a multicultural society … Basically, up until high school, everything is taught in Arabic. So, kids learn history, math, science and art—everything—in Arabic. Once they graduate and go to college, everything is in French,” she explained. “It's a real concern … Today, if you don’t put your kids in private schools, they don’t have any chance to go to college.”

Now, she aspires to use her experience, vision and education to address these ongoing issues in Moroccan public schools. And she feels confident in her decision to do so at GSE—especially after her first conversation with Erin Kearney, associate professor and chair of the Department of Learning and Instruction. “She told me that I could be a scholar-activist. She gave me the confidence that I was lacking—just by using the words ‘scholar-activist.’ I realized I can be an activist today with my experience and my knowledge because academic research is the only way for me to be able to write freely and to have an impact,” Sghyar shared.

Her doctoral advisor, Janina Brutt-Griffler, is thrilled to have her join GSE’s scholar-activist community: “She has experienced the workings of multilingualism across multiple cultures and societies and has put it into practice in and outside of the classroom.

“I am truly excited about her joining our very talented group of doctoral students in GSE and [the language education and multilingualism program],” Brutt-Griffler continued. “Najat brings a unique perspective from a region and cultures to our school and will undoubtedly enrich our mission on research in multicultural and language learning.”

Infusing educational communities with compassion and inclusivity

Richard Williams’ journey through education has been diverse and deeply rooted in his commitment to compassionate teaching and community building. Hailing from Georgia, Williams embarked on his educational journey by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Georgia State University. However, it was during his time at Clark Atlanta University, where he earned a master’s degree in special education, that he found his calling: working with students facing emotional and behavioral challenges and diagnoses such as emotional behavior disorders, autism and other health impairments.

With his passion ignited, he spent a decade in special education classrooms throughout Virginia, the District of Columbia and Rhode Island, working tirelessly with students—who often faced severe challenges—and guiding them on a path of healing and academic growth.

School administrators in the districts where Williams worked took notice, and his path to school leadership began. He started leading interdisciplinary projects that aimed to create more inclusive and compassionate learning environments. Eventually, he moved into district leadership roles, serving as a compliance and quality officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools and then managing the entire special education division for Providence Public Schools.

Headshot of Richard Williams.

Richard Williams

With a devotion to education extending beyond K-12 settings, he also became an adjunct professor at American University and engaged with professional organizations, like the Council for Exceptional Children, to advocate for marginalized students and drive change in education. Through these experiences, Williams recognized that compassion plays a pivotal role in education but often goes unnoticed.

Through it all, he has remained committed to creating environments where people feel like they belong and their perspectives are valued, and where compassion is a guiding principle.

“For most of my academic and professional career, maybe because I am a person with divergent abilities (disability), I didn’t really feel belonging … and so part of my commitment to being a leader, a servant leader, is to keep aware of those kinds of experiences and know that there are a lot of people in the academy who feel like they don’t belong when they damn sure do,” Williams said.

One step he’s taken to achieve this goal is serving as editor on the soon-to-be-published book, “Healing While Studying: Reflections and Strategies for Healing, Coping, and Liberation of Graduate Students of Minoritized Identities.”

Now, his research interests at GSE are anchored in three significant areas: identifying and promoting compassion in education, with a focus on creating emotionally supportive learning environments; transforming education through a rehabilitative approach, advocating for the dismantling of traditional structures and addressing inequality; and supporting compassion within marginalized communities, aiming to combat systemic issues like white supremacy and rebuild a sense of community in academic and professional settings.

“My goal is to come and learn and create a pedagogy of compassion that we can take into spaces and work into academics, where everything is permeated with compassion,” said Williams. “I realized that UB GSE and being a mentee of Dr. King would be the perfect setting with the perfect people.”

As his advisor, King emphasizes that Williams’ work extends beyond traditional educational boundaries to address broader societal issues: “His experience is unmatched. I think the world of Richard—Richard is what I call a transdisciplinary scholar, as his work is not only about teaching or about social studies. Sometimes, his work is not about traditional education per se. He deals with the intersections of race, social justice and healing, among other things. To me, being a transdisciplinary scholar, as Richard is, holds no boundaries, and that is an excellent way to think and write about the world.

“I am working with Richard because of his intellect, curiosity and insightfulness, and because he is a great human,” King added. “Being a great human is something I think we scholars do not value enough. Our humanity is what sets us up for work that not only provides new knowledge but contributes to the world in a positive way.”

What I got from Dr. King when we first talked was this sense of, ‘We see you as a  scholar, but we also see you as a person.’

Richard Williams

Promoting equity and accessibility in higher education

Sara Kieffer’s work is deeply personal. At the age of 30, she was diagnosed with ADHD—a discovery that shed light on her past academic challenges. With a better understanding of herself and her diagnosis, she decided to enroll at Long Beach City College, earning her associate degree in sociology and social science. Soon after, she was accepted at UCLA, where she majored in gender studies and education. “I attended community college first and that is how I got to UCLA. My community college background is really important to me,” she said.

Kieffer’s research interests center on gender studies, disability studies and education. In particular, she is interested in studying community colleges and the experiences of adult women learners, with a specific focus on how neurodiversity intersects with education.

Headshot of Sara Kieffer.

Sara Kieffer

“[My research] is meaningful because it’s the story of me,” she said. “I base a lot of this on my own experiences, then back it up with research. All the research that I’ve done has carried that element of me in it.”

[My research] is meaningful because it’s the story of me. I base a lot of this on my own experiences, then back it up with research. All the research that I’ve done has carried that element of me in it.

Sara Kieffer

In addition to being a lifelong learner and researcher, Kieffer is a dedicated educator. In her free time, she volunteers to teach an introduction to college course for system-impacted students. Her involvement in this program reflects her commitment to creating opportunities for those who are often overlooked by traditional education systems.

“Teaching women was amazing. They were so interested; they were so engaged. One of them was getting ready to apply for transfer … She was in a transitional kind of prison where she was on her way out. She was like, ‘As soon as I’m released, I’m going to apply and go to university. I want to do this,” Kieffer recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing. Here are the resources you need to do that.’”

Through these experiences, Kieffer realized that higher education wasn’t necessarily designed to cater to adult learners. This revelation fueled her desire to explore the challenges of individuals who pursue education later in life, particularly those with neurodivergent identities.

When she began exploring PhD programs, she was searching for the right academic home—a place that aligned with her unique research interests and personal needs. She ultimately decided to search for an advisor, rather than a specific school, whose expertise complemented her own while providing the freedom to explore adjacent areas of interest. Ultimately, she found her match in Margaret Sallee.

Now, through her doctoral research, Kieffer seeks to challenge stereotypes, promote inclusivity and support adult learners to create a more equitable and accessible higher education system. She also strives to challenge misconceptions about neurodivergent individuals and their potential for success in higher education.

Sallee is delighted to work with Kieffer—both on her advisee’s research and her own projects focused on student-mothers in college. “As a Californian myself, I’m always excited to see applicants from the West Coast. But I’m even more excited to welcome Sara because of her interest in adult women college students and commitment to gender studies,” said Sallee.

“She returned to higher ed as an adult student herself and has done incredible work both as an undergraduate and a graduate student. It was this combination of factors that made her especially exciting.”

Multidisciplinary interests, new research frontiers

Ashfique Rizwan, GSE counseling psychology and school psychology PhD student from Dhaka, Bangladesh, brings diverse and interdisciplinary interests to the school and his research.

His academic journey began with a foray into the world of theater while he pursued his undergraduate studies. These interests led him to a university theater group, where he engaged in acting, directing and organizing drama festivals. This initial love for theater eventually intertwined with psychology, particularly psychodrama, igniting a profound curiosity within him.

However, practicality led him to complete his undergraduate and master’s degrees in pharmacy and work in international marketing for a pharmaceutical company. Unfortunately, he soon realized that the position did not align with his passion for research, and he knew he wanted to pursue a more meaningful profession.

Headshot of Ashfique Rizwan.

Ashfique Rizwan

He contacted the research director at the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health at BRAC University in Dhaka. “They were thinking of submitting a proposal to the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, WOTRO Science for Global Development (NWO) about applying psychodrama to the young men living in the slums to look at their risky sexual behavior and how psychodrama can change that,” he explained. “So I said, ‘OK, I can help you with the literature of psychodrama, and I can help you write the proposal. So, I voluntarily helped them, and after six months, they got the funding. And then it was, I think, a time to decide what I should do. I left my pharmaceutical marketing job, then joined the University, and simultaneously, I was doing a master’s in public health.”

During that time, Rizwan pursued another passion: He acted in a full-length feature film, “Bengali Beauty,” released internationally in 2018 and currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

His journey continued with work at a nonprofit human development organization based in North Carolina with a chapter in Dhaka, focusing on improving nutrition and entrepreneurship among women in rural communities in Bangladesh.

Next, his experience and passion for psychodrama led him to another professional opportunity at Therapeutic Spiral International—an organization that provides experiential trauma therapy training worldwide. At the same time, he established a mental health startup focused on helping vulnerable populations, such as garment workers in Dhaka. While focused on the growth of his business, his wife received an offer of admission to UB’s master’s program in pharmacology and toxicology. Rizwan decided to come to Buffalo to support his wife in August 2021.

In April 2022, he joined UB’s Division of Behavioral Medicine within the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, coordinating and developing research study ideas and making new connections, including a connection with Myles Faith. “I was impressed with Ashfique’s passion for research, experience conducting research and his desire to use research to improve the well-being of others,” Faith said.

Faith encouraged him to apply to the counseling psychology and school psychology PhD program—and soon thereafter, Rizwan was accepted, and Faith became his advisor. While Rizwan hopes to bridge the gap between Eastern philosophy and Western psychological practices and strive for a more eclectic and holistic approach to mental health intervention, he is also open to new areas of interest and opportunity.

“The fun part is developing and refining specific ideas, and doing this with students like Ashfique is exciting,” Faith said.

The scholarship will help me to focus more on my studies and focus on my research work, and the graduate assistantship. It means everything and is helping me to  actually work in the field that I love.

Ashfique Rizwan

GSE’s commitment coming back into focus

The beginning of the fall semester has brought a renewed commitment from faculty and staff to support GSE’s new scholars. Reynolds hopes the new PhD students are challenged and enriched, personally and professionally. “I sincerely hope that their goals, hopes and dreams become a reality and that they are able to make the difference in the world to which they are so clearly committed,” she said. “My wish for them is that they are able to develop the competence they need and desire.”

Interacting with the new class of GSE’s PhD students also serves as a reminder of the greater power in continually redefining and recommitting to excellence as a school of education. “Taking the time to reflect on our PhD programs—from recruitment, to funding, to equity and diversity, to the curricular and co-curricular experiences, and to mentorship and advisement—has enabled GSE to ensure that our PhD programs are student-centered, rigorous, vibrant and aligned to our mission and core priorities of preparing the next generation of engaged scholars,” said Rosenblith.