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Thurnau professor series: Sweeney promotes social justice through literature

By Rachel Premack, Daily News Editor
Published February 25, 2014

Associate Prof. Megan Sweeney remembered Payne Hiraldo as a shy fourth grader from New York City’s Washington Heights, a girl she mentored and taught more than 20 years ago at P.S. 128 Elementary School.

Last December, Sweeney learned her student — the girl whose family she got to know, whose first Holy Communion she attended — earned her master’s degree from the University of Vermont. Hiraldo now works at the University of Maryland, College Park as a residence director.

“Once I found you and had the opportunity to look at your CV, it felt great to know that you yourself went off to become an professor, get tenure and become a director,” Hiraldo wrote in an e-mail to Sweeney. “It is very inspiring. You serve as a reminder of what I would like to do and where my passion lies.”

And Sweeney herself — who serves as an associate professor with joint appointment in the Departments of English Language and Literature and Afroamerican and African Studies, as a faculty affiliate in Women’s Studies and American Culture and director of undergraduate studies in the DAAS — continues to teach.

These kinds of reconnections are common for Sweeney, recently named an Arthur F. Thurnau professor in recognition of her work in undergraduate teaching. Even though she’s teaching seminars in race and gender instead of how to multiply fractions, Sweeney said she values relationships with former students.

“That’s a teacher’s dream to hear back from a long time ago and see who they’ve become and keep that connection,” Sweeney said. “It can be emotional at the end of the semester when you feel like you don’t know how often you’ll see your students, but I’ve actually been fortunate and been able to keep in touch with a lot of my students over time, and that matters to me a lot.”

Sweeney's résumé reflects a hodgepodge of community involvement between receiving her B.A. at Northwestern in 1989 and M.A. from Penn State in 1997. She also received her Ph.D. at Duke University in 2002. Among her former positions are as a caretaker for children afflicted with AIDS in Houston, an arts and education facilitator in a Mississippi town where 20 percent of families live on incomes of less than $10,000 per year and a seamstress in a factory near Boston. Sweeney recalls listening to the life stories of her factory co-workers — including a Japanese woman who lost her arm and young women from the area who were already mothers.

She said some of the most inspiring stories came from the female prisoners she met when working as a book club facilitator and GED tutor at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, a women’s prison, and a halfway home where recently released prisoners work to readjust to society.

Sweeney remembers a 42-year-old prisoner named Sissy as being particularly inspiring. Sissy used books and art as a way to understand the world beyond her upbringing in Mississippi, where she encountered racism and substance abuse, as well as abusive and violent relationships.

“She has been unfathomably creative in trying to educate herself and stay connected to the world around her,” Sweeney said. “Reading has helped her to understand people whose experiences and backgrounds are different than hers. The materials that are available to prisoners are so paltry.”

Sweeney later featured Sissy and others in two books. “Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons,” which won the 2011 Emily Toth Award for Best Single Work in Women’s Studies, a 2010 PASS Award from the National Council of Crime and Delinquency and an Honorable Mention for the 2011 Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Award, examines how prisoners like Sissy use reading to come to terms with their pasts.


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