Newman Civic Fellowship awarded to graduate student Alex Mejía for linguistic research in education
By Debra Pacio, '15, MA '18
Stanford graduate student Alexander Feliciano Mejía can be found in high school classrooms in the East Bay, listening intently to how students express themselves in everyday interactions. For Mejía, students aren’t just making casual conversation during passing periods and breaks; they are creatively constructing language by adapting and applying linguistic skills in new and often unexpected ways.
Mejía is a third-year doctoral candidate in educational linguistics in the Race, Inequality and Language in Education program at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. His research focuses on language learning and literacy development in high school, community college and workplace settings. In working with students of color whose linguistic competencies have often been made invisible, Mejía’s research focuses on the dynamic linguistic practices exhibited by working-class students, especially those institutionally classified as “English Learners.”
In recognition of his work to advance educational equity, Mejía has been awarded the 2020 Newman Civic Fellowship by Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne recommended him for the award, which recognizes and supports student changemakers and public problem-solvers.
“Alex is a gifted and dedicated educator whose work is advancing our understanding of language learning beyond the classroom,” said Deborah Stipek, Judy Koch Professor of Education and Peter E. Haas Faculty Director of the Haas Center for Public Service. “We are delighted that his leadership in classrooms and his community-based research through the Graduate School of Education are being recognized.”
Mejía’s research seeks to understand and make visible young people’s creativity and dexterity in acquiring and using language—particularly through peer interactions and in informal learning environments. He currently conducts participant observations as a volunteer and researcher at an East Bay continuation high school, paying close attention to transitions between tasks, classes and after-school activities.
“I’m looking at how they’re talking and interacting with one another,” explained Mejía. “What jokes are they telling? What are the things they say to one another in these transitional moments? It’s a place where they have a little bit more freedom to express whatever they are trying to express, and I think that’s an understudied site of language practice.”
A Bay Area native, Mejía served for five years as an instructional assistant and eight years as an English teacher in Oakland and Berkeley. As a teacher, he focused on preparing students for college, but over time became interested in the limitations of a formal curriculum and of academic language as the primary form that students should learn.
“In the midst of becoming a stronger language arts teacher, I was able to see more clearly that there were all these moments in the school day that were linguistically fascinating,” said Mejía. “I saw all this creativity that I wasn’t really tapping into.”
Toward the end of his teaching career, Mejía taught at a neighboring community college, which some of his high school students were concurrently attending. Students shared anecdotes of learning idiomatic phrases while working in food service, adapting high school essays for a community college class, and applying sentence starters taught in the classroom to other settings.
“Talking with students who were in two different educational institutions at the same time pushed me to rethink the focus on academic language and to see how they were creatively adapting different tools in a new context,” said Mejía.
Inspired by these experiences, Mejía has dedicated his research to language learning and education outside of the traditional parameters of instruction. He is committed to improving educational opportunities for historically marginalized communities—this time from a research vantage point. His goal is to collaborate with teachers who work with multilingual youth and apply research findings to help them shape curricula that leverage students’ linguistic strengths and creativity.
Mejía is honored to receive the Newman Civic Fellowship, which offers students training, networking opportunities and a national convening as part of building a national network of engaged student leaders.
“This fellowship opportunity allows me to reflect on my background in the community, workplace and student organizing,” said Mejía. “In education and society as a whole, there is a narrower and narrower view of what counts as good use of language. There’s been a lot of dynamic teaching and organizing around language, whether through advocacy for multilingual education or the tradition of educators who have fought for students’ right to their own language. I want to think through those different traditions and how those approaches can be more directly connected to the linguistic creativity of working-class immigrant youth.”
Debra Pacio is a communications writer at the Haas Center for Public Service.