PhD in International Education

Grace Pai

Grace Pai received a Bachelors of Science in Management and International Business with a minor in Psychology from the Stern School of Business at New York University, as well as a Master of Education in Risk and Prevention Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  A former Peace Corps volunteer both in Bangladesh and South Africa, she was also a high school math teacher through the New York City Teaching Fellows program. She is now specializing in applied econometrics, and her research interests include teacher development, education and the labor market, and education policy in developing countries.       


Expected Date of Graduation: 2015

Why did you choose to pursue a Doctoral degree in International Education?

After graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps in Bangladesh where I developed a passion for international development work. Upon returning to America, I reflected on how I can best contribute to alleviating global poverty and felt that, given my background, I could make the biggest contribution in the field of education. I then got a Masters in school counseling as well as another Masters in teaching secondary math, before becoming a high school math teacher in New York City through the Teaching Fellows program. I decided to pursue a doctoral degree when I realized I wanted to effect change at a level higher than what I could do in the classroom, and International Education seemed like a program that would meld my interests in education reform and international development.

Please describe the focus of your research:

Broadly speaking, I am interested in education policies and reform in sub-Saharan Africa. For my dissertation, I am using mixed methods to research why– despite great recent progress – the UN Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education remains elusive in post-conflict Sierra Leone.In addition to a historical analysis of how the concept of mass schooling was conceived following independence in 1961, I also aim to study the effect of a rural education project from the 1970s and 80s on primary school completion, as well as the current relative influence of demand-side, household level and supply-side, school level factors on school attendance. The crux of my dissertation is then to understand the experiences of children who are persistent non-attenders of primary school, and the attitudes of their parents towards education.

Professor or scholar who has influenced you the most:

I have time and time again been blown away by how much guidance and inspiration I have received from my advisor and dissertation chair, Prof. Dana Burde, as well asthe other incredible facultymembers I’ve come to know the past three years. What makes this program special is the interdisciplinary access and support I’ve received – from leading quantitative experts like Profs. Jennifer Hill and Sean Corcoran, to eminent historians such as Profs. Jon Zimmerman and Frederick Cooper, to top sociologists like Prof. Lisa Stulberg.

In terms of classic education literature, I would have to say Foucault is still the scholar who has influenced me the most in terms of shaping the way I fundamentally think. I’ll never forget how his work made me really question the mundane institutions, structures and practices that we often accept and take for granted. If we want education to achieve the ideal of being a primary source of social mobility – which is why I do think the majority of people nowadays seek education either for themselves or for their children – I think we need to constantly understand the ways in which education may serve instead as a form of social stratification at the micro level, and work to rectify those issues. That is why I find it helpful to always return to critical theory as a means of balancing the widespread belief that universal education isalways a universal good.

Please list any awards, fellowships, publications, and other accolades you would like included on your doctoral profile:

  • AERA Minority Dissertation Fellowship (2014)
  • Shearwater Travel Grant (2014)
  • NYU Steinhardt Doctoral Student Travel Award (2013)
  • Education Pioneers Summer Fellowship (2012)
  • NYU Steinhardt Fellowship (2010 – 2015)
  • New York City Teaching Fellowship (2008 – 2010)
  • Harvard Graduate School of Education Grant (2006 – 2007)
  • Beta Gamma Sigma Civic Service Award (2003)
  • New York University Founders’ Day Award (1999 – 2003)


Corcoran, Sean P. and Grace Pai (2013), "Unlocking New York City's High School Progress Report," New Visions for Public Schools.

Pai, G. (2013). Particularizing Universal Education in Postcolonial Sierra Leone. Current Issues in Comparative Education,16(1): 62-73.

Courses Taught:

At NYU, I’ve been a Teaching Assistant for the courseComparative Studies of Education II: Quantitative Analysis. In the past, I’ve also taught Integrated Algebra and Social Justice Mathat a transfer school in Brooklyn, and to 9th graders in Manhattan.

What are your career goals?

Thanks to the program, I have become increasingly interested in conducting research that can contribute to more socially just education policies. Ideally, I would be able to do that in conjunction with working with students in either high school (who I sorely miss) or community colleges – an institution that I believe is currently in dire need of more support and development.

What do you like the most about the International Education program at NYU Steinhardt?

As I mentioned before, I love the interdisciplinary nature of the IE program that has allowed me to build relationships with a diverse range of faculty members, who have been unbelievably nurturing and generous with their time. I did not come into the program expecting to gain a family, but that is indeed what has happened with the faculty (including our guiding light Prof. Phil Hosay), staff (where would we be without Lucy, Letizia, Erinn and Jessica’s extreme competence and efficiency?) and my fellow colleagues who I greatly admire and rely on.