Creating a place for every student
In fall 2021, Sonia Nieto ’79EdD, professor emerita of language, literacy, and culture in the College of Education, received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities in recognition of her lifetime of work in public, bilingual, and multicultural education reform, along with her social justice scholarship.
Nieto began teaching at UMass in 1980 when few universities were focused on multicultural education or diversity. “UMass in the mid-1970s already had social justice education as an important value and goal in several programs. This focus allowed me to explore and build on these ideas, to make room for issues that weren’t being addressed in other places,” she says. Her 1992 book, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, has been recognized for helping define education in the 20th century by the Museum of Education. The 5th through 7th editions of the book were co-authored by Patty Bode.
“My work really is about what happens in schools and classrooms, and how can we make it better for students who’ve been marginalized,” says Nieto. A true educator, Nieto herself has continued to learn and grow. While race and ethnicity are still at the center of her work, Nieto now sees disability, gender identity, and other identities as an essential part of multicultural education. “If we’re really concerned about diversity, it shouldn’t just be one thing because life is not one thing,” she says.
Keeping native languages alive and well
Growing up in the remote Alaskan village of Emmonak, Waska “Walkie” Charles ’94MEd learned two Yup’ik dialects from birth, as well as “village English”—a combination of Yup’ik and English vocabulary and phrases. So, it was no surprise when he showed an early interest in language education and linguistics. It was, however, a surprise when he decided he was going away to study at a university. Charles was one of the first in his village to go to college, studying first at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and then, seeking to improve the quality of the Native-language education he provided, in the master of education program at UMass Amherst—venturing over 4,000 miles from home.
In July 2021, Charles was named the new director of the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC)—the first Alaska Native to hold the position in the center’s 50-year history. “My role is to emphasize that we serve our communities by keeping our culture and languages alive,” says Charles. “ANLC has the responsibility of documenting, promoting, cultivating, and revitalizing Alaska Native languages and cultures.” He continues, “I want to make our people in Alaska know that ANLC is a space that is accessible for learning more about the languages of our past elders.”