Irene Yoon

In diverse schools, creating a sense of belonging for students and faculty of all backgrounds can be a challenge that directly impacts one’s ability to learn and succeed.

University of Utah professor Irene Yoon (PhD ‘11) is familiar with the feeling of being an outsider after having lived in urban and rural places on both coasts. She understands the experience of learning new cultures while adjusting to various resources and relationships.

“My life has influenced the way I think about what kids encounter and adjust to when their schools are racially diverse and the teachers and leaders are predominantly white,” Yoon said. “On top of myriad of other identity dimensions they are making sense of how they fit, if at all.”

As a professor of education leadership and policy, Yoon is delving into issues such as race, class, gender and ability in school and their impact on professional learning, school reform and classroom instruction.

“I observe classrooms and teacher groups to learn about how socioeconomic class, gender and race are factors for teachers, especially in racially diverse schools,” Yoon said. “How do students of different backgrounds navigate schools when teachers are predominantly white women?”

Yoon’s interest in improving school systems is rooted in her lifelong desire to become a teacher, and today her research includes how verbal interactions affect the overall culture of a school. Yoon looks for trends in interactions among teachers and with their students to see how discourse is having an impact on the student perception of belonging.

As a graduate student in organizational and policy studies, Yoon recalls a sense of belonging played a crucial role in her experience at the University of Washington College of Education.

“The environment gave students many opportunities to learn from each other,” she said. “It was a place where I felt like everyone was really genuine.”

At the schools where she does field research, Yoon intends to recreate the positive experiences of acceptance and belonging that she had as a student.

“I would like to continue thinking about how institutions create emotional and behavioral support for kids,” she said. “I want to support making schools a more humanizing place. Administrators can learn what that looks like and also try to create that experience at their school.”

In the future, Yoon wants to see her work be applied not only in research, but also in school systems.

“My goal is for my research to become something that is useful, not only in the future of education research, but also information that is applied by teachers and staff members in the way they run their schools.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications