Grad Student Corner (Summer 2020): Introducing Valeria Zunino

By Megan Welsh posted 07-31-2020 15:51

Valeria Zunino, UC Davis


In this column, I would like to share my experience as a Chilean Ph.D. student, wife, and mother of two children. I hope these words can motivate you to pursue your professional goals, but without forgetting your personal and family needs.


After I graduated as an elementary school teacher (about 20 years ago!) I soon started working on a very prestigious private school. I had a good salary and a comfortable life. However, my motivation to contribute to Chile's public education was stronger and I had an opportunity to work for the Ministry of Education. I joined the team in charge of developing Simce, a high stake standardized national assessment with recognized high-quality standards. Like in the US, Chile has based its educational decisions in the belief that promoting competition between schools will make them improve, and this test has been at the service of this idea. 


After working for the development of Simce, I assumed a position at a school district where I realized the unintended consequences that this test provoked and the pressure that teachers had to deal with. I witnessed how administrators interpreted and used these results in making inappropriate decisions. This made me question the real impact and contribution of these standardized assessment systems and have driven my professional and academic decisions. 


Just before coming to UC Davis, I was leading the team responsible for designing a new standardized test. Our goal was to develop a high-quality assessment to support teachers to make appropriate instructional decisions. Many believed that a voluntary assessment, with no stakes, was not going to be used by the school community, but the results showed the opposite. More than 70% of schools in Chile decided to apply the test and teachers valued its reports. This experience strengthened my conviction that teachers are willing to receive external information regarding student's outcomes, as long as this information is used to support students' learning process and not to compete between schools.


Although I was excited about my job and the future seemed promising, I felt I needed more tools to contribute to the development of Chile’s educational system. Thanks to a scholarship from the Chilean government, I came to UC Davis, bringing with me my husband and my two kids. All three took a risk by joining me in this adventure, without even knowing how to speak English. We had to face several negative comments from close people, who felt our decision was too risky, but we decided to move forward. 

I have struggled to try to manage different roles: student, mom, and wife. Making time for my studies and for my family has been a huge challenge. I will never forget when my daughter left me letters cheering me up during finals. Or when my son drew me sitting in front of a computer for Mother’s Day. However, at the same time, the rewards have been countless. Every experience, including working as a TA and a GSR, has contributed to broaden and change my perspective of the educational process.  On the other hand, being part of a university community has allowed me to know amazing people. I am grateful for all the support and friendship of my advisers, teachers, and friends. Personally, I think that establishing a strong relationship with people is as important as being a good student and getting good grades.


I can't finish this column without acknowledging the events of these past months. Unfortunately, we have witnessed how social and racial inequalities are deeply rooted in our society. I believe that as educational researchers in the area of assessment, we are called to address this issue. It is our responsibility to contribute to the development of fair assessment systems and quality assessment tools for teachers that allow every student to show what they know and can do.


Like for everyone, these last three months have been a huge challenge for us. I feel a great burden when I think about how I practically "dragged" my family here with me, especially when I see my kids facing difficulties or feeling homesick. However, looking back, I can see all the efforts have been worth it. We have been able to show our kids that they can learn from every single person in any part of the world, and that success does not mean to be the best or to have a beautiful house or a fancy car, but in pursuing our dreams even though they can be far from the expectations of the rest.