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McGee Adefolalu’s Talent and Big Dreams Pay Off

by Tom Hanlon / Nov 15, 2022

Kailah McGee Adefolalu

Kailah McGee Adefolalu is parlaying talent, desire, and opportunity to realize dreams many people wouldn’t have the courage or insight to pursue. Now working on her Ph.D. in Education at Harvard University, Adefolalu’s inspiring story includes some life-changing experiences in the College of Education and its Learning and Education Studies program.

Her neighborhood high school on the South Side of Chicago was coming off probation. A student had just gotten stabbed there. Violence in and around the school was the norm.

Huh uh, Kailah McGee Adefolalu’s parents said. You’re not going there. We’ve got bigger and better dreams for you.

So Adefolalu, just getting ready to enter high school, applied to Lane Tech, a selective enrollment school on the North Side. It’s the #3-ranked school in Illinois, and a two-hour one-way commute from Adefolalu’s home. The admissions process is highly competitive: Only 10 percent of applicants are offered a spot.

Adefolalu was among that 10 percent when she applied. She caught a 6 a.m. bus every morning and often didn’t start her return two-hour trip home until 6 p.m.

“It was a character builder, that’s for sure,” she laughs now.

Two Pivotal Decisions

It was also the best decision her parents could have made for her.

“It really shaped who I am,” says Adefolalu, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Learning and Education Studies from the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and is now working on her Ph.D. in Education at Harvard University.

The daily bus rides opened her eyes to just how segregated the city is. “As the complexions of the people start to change, you see the way resources are distributed across the city completely differently,” she says. “That sparked something in me to think about social situations, and now I’m a social scientist.”

While at Lane Tech, Adefolalu made the annual trek to Champaign for the Illinois Science Olympiad competition, held on campus. She fell in love with the campus and with the cafeteria food offering Mediterranean and Indian dishes as well as—to the wide-eyed delight of a teenager—waffles with ice cream any time you wanted. “That, plus the gorgeous campus and the academic work that I was doing, I think it was fate that I ended up at the University of Illinois,” she says.

She began in African American Studies, knowing that she wanted to impact her community, but not sure how. She switched to Learning and Education Studies (LES) her junior year. It proved to be another pivotal decision for her, just as the Lane Tech decision was six years earlier.

“I wasn’t positive I wanted to teach but I knew I wanted to work with students,” Adefolalu says. “Dr. Christopher Span told me about the program, saying it offers many options that I didn’t even know existed. And I was drawn by one of the concentrations LES offers, Educational Equality and Cultural Understanding. It complemented what I was learning in African American Studies, which became my minor. I loved my time in LES.”

Strengths of LES

Learning and Education Studies, Adefolalu says, is great for preparing students to either enter the classroom and teach or go into a “thought field,” which is the path that she has chosen.

“LES has two great strengths,” she says. “One is the breadth of the program, what it exposes you to. The breadth sparked my curiosity. I was a passionate person before I came to LES but it allowed me to figure out where that passion would best serve me. And it ended up not being in the classroom, which I never would have guessed. That’s one of the biggest pros.

“The other is the faculty. They’re so passionate! I didn’t realize until I went to grad school that they’re heavy hitters in the field. I didn’t realize how privileged we were to have real pillars of the field of education right in front of us. All I knew was they were professors who cared about me and cared about the work. They go above and beyond.”

Adefolalu rates the College’s professors on a par with Harvard’s. “It’s truly a top-tier faculty,” she says of Illinois’ College of Education faculty. “They’re just incredible.”

She cites professors Helen Neville, Michelle Perry, Adrienne Dixson, and Chris Span as particularly influential in her career path. Near the end of her senior year, Neville essentially told Adefolalu that she was going to grad school and helped her research institutions. Adefolalu ended up at UCLA, but made the decision to transfer to Harvard after two years because her funding at UCLA ran out.

Ever resilient, as her funds were running low in Los Angeles, she created a curriculum called Liberation Lessons and worked one-on-one with junior high and high school students of color to learn about African American history from a student-centered perspective.

“I wanted to empower students, and I put together what I learned from LES and African American Studies to help students learn about their history and to feel a sense of social and civic efficacy,” Adefolalu says. “The whole point was to liberate the mind to help students become changemakers by first thinking about the world around them.”

On to Harvard

Neville had originally suggested Harvard as an option after Illinois, but Adefolalu didn’t see the venerable school as a good fit. However, needing to transfer from UCLA, she revisited the idea. “I can only attribute it to God,” she says, looking back on her decision to apply. “There wasn’t anything telling me ‘Hey, you’d be a great fit there.’ But people there were doing work that was related to mine, so I gave it a shot.” She laughs. “Four years later, I’m still processing the news that I got in!”

While at Harvard, she has worked for the educational foundation of GBH, Boston’s public radio outlet that provides the educational materials for PBS LearningMedia (think of shows such as Arthur, Barney & Friends, and NOVA). GBH produces curricula on commonly-taught topics in U.S. history and presents them from different perspectives—for example, exploring the women’s suffrage movement from the perspectives of Native American and African American women. “My role was to go into classrooms and study how teachers were using the curriculum to make sure it was having the impact the team wanted it to have,” Adefolalu says.

She also works for the Democratic Knowledge Project, which is another curriculum-based project. “Our mission is to really support elementary students in becoming civically liberated and civically empowered so that we can foster a more robust participatory democracy,” she says. “I’m an equity person on the team, helping us think about issues of equity not just for Boston public school students, the majority of whom are of color, but also for more affluent and privileged white students who don’t realize that their experiences are insulated. What does it mean for them to think about civics from an equity perspective? What does it mean to think about immigration, about police brutality, from an equity perspective?”

Adefolalu expects to complete her Ph.D. in 2025 and would like to return to Chicago in a professorial role. “I’d be open to becoming a professor in any area with a large public school system,” she says, “but I’d love to do work that helps to improve Chicago Public Schools. Teaching and research are what I want to be doing.”

Four Influential Classes

As Adefolalu looks back on her time at Illinois, she speaks of four classes that greatly influenced her—though narrowing it to four was not easy, she says. She lists Foundations of Learning with Michelle Perry (“It got me thinking about education research”), History of American Education with Chris Span (“It helped me imagine another way forward that doesn’t repeat genocide or imperialism”), Politics of Education with Adrienne Dixson (“She picked up where Dr. Span left off, with a rigorous interrogation of contemporary issues ”), and Physical Education (“It got me to really think about what it means to bring the body into the educative process and it helped me with lesson planning and teaching and knowing how to adjust when not everything goes as planned in the classroom”).

Daring to Dream Big

Kailah McGee Adefolalu dares to dream big. It landed her at Lane Tech, which paved the way for her to go to the University of Illinois. Which led to UCLA and then to Harvard. Dreaming big requires risk, and work, and hardship—such as a four-hour roundtrip daily commute for four years. But it is oh so worth it, she says.

When she was living in Chicago, she would go to the Harold Washington Library Center and to YOUmedia, a learning space at 29 Chicago Public Library locations. “Those places encourage dreaming without bounds,” she says. “I learned how to do videography, we started a magazine, some of my closest friends became artists, working for MTV, there were future Grammy Award winners like Chance the Rapper—we were all in the same YOUmedia space with adults around us saying ‘You can do it, dream bigger, here are the resources to do it. Here’s this space to do inhouse recording, to rent video cameras, to draw, to be productive.’

“The library is not just for nerds! Especially the YOUmedia teen center, you’ll find other teens who just want to dream and change things and have fun as well, and that’s a really good place to foster growth.”

A Supportive Environment

The library and the YOUmedia teen center helped to foster Adefolalu’s growth. But that growth began at home with the support and encouragement of her parents. From them saying it’s worth a four-hour commute to get the education you need in a safe environment.

And that growth continued at the University of Illinois, particularly through the professors in the Learning and Education Studies program. She wouldn’t have considered a career other than teaching in a K-12 classroom, otherwise. She wouldn’t have considered going to grad school. And certainly not to Harvard University.

“I want to give a shoutout to all my LES faculty members for helping me get where I am,” Adefolalu says. “I would not be here without them.”

That fostering and nurturing will undoubtedly be paid back in full, as Adefolalu is intent on making a positive and life-changing impact on the lives of students. And what Adefolalu sets her mind to, she accomplishes.

Learn more about the College's Learning and Education Studies program here.