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EPOL Department - Student Spotlight

Meet our EPOL Graduate Students!

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  • Naomi Simmons-Thorne, PhD (She/Her)

    Naomi Simmons-Thorne is a PhD Student in Philosophy of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Naomi serves as an instructor, graduate research assistant, and Doctoral Fellow of the Graduate College

    Her research interests include moral and political philosophy, black education, black feminism, Africana philosophy, decolonial thought, Marxism, and critical theory/pedagogies. 

    Advisor: Rebecca Taylor

    Anticipated Graduation: 2028


    • PhD (2028), Philosophy of Education, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
    • MT (2023), English Education, University of South Carolina
    • BA/BS (2020), Philosophy and Sociology, University of South Carolina
    • AA/AS (2018), Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College
  • Adetutu Fabusoro PhD (She, Her)

    Adetutu Fabusoro is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Education, Policy, Organization, and Leadership, with a concentration in Human Resource Development. She has more than 10 years of experience in the corporate sector HR Learning and Development, Marketing, Relationship management, and the media in her country, and 3 years of experience in higher education teaching in the US. Her research interest is in Communicative competence/linguistics profiling and effect on career development in Corporate America

    Advisor: Jessica Li

    Expected Graduation: 2025

    Academic Background:

    Ph.D. (in progress) Education Policy, Organization & Leadership | University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Concentration:  Human Resource Development

    M.A. Teaching English as Second Language (Linguistics), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

    M.A. Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Ibadan Nigeria.

    B.A. Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Ibadan Nigeria.

  • Mario D. Marquez, MPA

    Mario D. Marquez is a doctoral student in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership, with a concentration in Diversity and Equity, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mario is currently a Management Analyst with the District of Columbia Government. He previously served an adult school in Washington, DC where he oversaw dual-enrollment, workforce development, career coaching, and alumni services. A native of the Inland Empire, Mario earned a Master of Public Administration from California State University, San Bernardino, and a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and Sociology from the University of California, Riverside. He spent the early stages of his career supporting college access programs, community-based public health organizations, and transportation planning agencies. Mr. Marquez volunteered with Queer Alliance at UCR, Associated Students, Inc. at CSUSB, and The Next Step/El Próximo Paso’s Board of Trustees. His professional interests include school choice models, performance management, public education finance, and nonprofit governance; and his research interests concern access policies, excluded populations, and postsecondary education.

  • Nina Frye, M.Ed (she/her)

    Nina is a doctoral candidate in the EPOL department’s Diversity and Equity in Education program. She is the proud wife to Thomas and mother to Winola (8), Maybelle (6), and Barrett (4). A 16-year veteran educator, Nina teaches Language Arts at Urbana Middle School. She strives to empower her students, especially those from historically marginalized groups. Nina’s research interests include encouraging student voice within the classroom, investigating the efficacy of workshop pedagogy, and promoting antiracist ideologies among preservice and practicing teachers. Upon graduation, Nina will continue teaching and begin amateur rock tumbling. 

  • Aigul Rakisheva, PhD (She/Her)

    Aigul Rakisheva is a doctoral student in the Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership Department, with a concentration in Global Studies in Education. Her research interests include initial teacher education focusing on Information and Communication Technologies and Virtual Exchange, the rural and urban gap in education, gender equality in higher education, and international/comparative research. Aigul utilizes mixed methods and art-based methods in her research approach.

    • Advisor: Dr. Allison Witt 
    • Expected Year of Graduation: 2027 
    • Educational Background: 
    • Ph.D. student, Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Concentration: Global Studies in Education 
    • M.Sc. Educational Leadership: Higher Education, Nazarbayev University 
    • M.Sc. in Geography, Pavlodar State University 
    • B.Sc. in Geography, Pavlodar State University 


  • Runfan Zhang, EdD Student

    Runfan Zhang is a doctoral student in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership program, with a concentration in Learning Design and Leadership. Runfan holds two master’s degrees, one in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language and one in Curriculum and Instruction. Her research focuses on Differentiated Instruction in Higher Education. Runfan has ten years of experience in education and currently serves as an assistant professor in California.

  • Charnessa Warren

    Charnessa Warren holds a Bachelor of Science in Speech & Hearing Science (UIUC), and a Master of Science degree in Disability and Human Development, with a concentration in Rehabilitative Technology (UIC).  Charnessa is a current doctoral student in the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, majoring in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, with a concentration in Diversity & Equity in Education. Charnessa is also a NCCJ St. Louis certified DEI FaciliTrainer. Charnessa currently works with the University of Chicago as the Director of Student Disability Services, as well as serves as a board member of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). With 25 years of experience as a disability accommodation specialist and assistive technology subject matter expert, she has grown into a well-respected disability inclusion advocate, speaker, leader, and thought partner in establishing innovative ways to incorporate disability as a part of diversity and inclusion efforts.

  • Beste Erel Windes, Ed.D. Student

    Beste Erel Windes is a doctoral student in the Global Studies in Education graduate concentration in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership. As a higher education professional, Beste is very interested in college student development and higher education policy in global contexts, particularly in global health education. Beste's research interests include educational gaps in the intersection of globalization and healthcare settings.

  • Nicole M. DelMastro-Jeffery

    Nicole M. DelMastro-Jeffery is a doctoral student in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership. Nicole’s research focuses on the intersection of community determinants of health and educational trajectories of marginalized collegians. Her quantitative approach to mapping proximity of educational institutions to quality basic needs, such as access to clean drinking water, is a genuine passion of hers. Over the past decade she has served in a variety of leadership roles across 2-year and 4-year colleges. Nicole is excited about the future upstream sustainable transdisciplinary approach to ensuring students’ physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing on their way to graduation.

  • Lauren Purcell, Ed.D. Student

    Lauren Purcell is a doctoral student in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership program, with a concentration in Learning Design and Leadership. Lauren holds a master's degree in Art and Design Education from Pratt Institute. Her area of focus is New Media, Learning, and Assessment Technologies. For the past 10 years, she has been an Instructional Designer (ID). Lauren's career goal is to become a Learning Experience Designer (LXD). 

  • Chiquita R N Toure, Ed.D Student

    Chiquita Toure is a doctoral student in Educational Policy, Organization and Leadership with a concentration in Diversity and Equity . As an educator- librarian her research interests include ethnic diversity in literature for grades PK12  soft censorship among school librarians, history of African American public education, oral history and Black Girlhood narratives. She has served in the Columbus City School disrict for over 27 years.

    Advisor: Dr Sharon Lee

    Expected graduation date: 2026

    Educational Background:

    Ed.D. student, Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Concentration: Diversity and Equity

    M.Ed., School Library and Information Technologies, Mansfield University ,Mansfield, Pennslyvania

    M.Ed., Educational Policy Studies, Policy Analysis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 

    B.S., Elementary Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


  • Haeryun Kim, PhD (She/Her)

    Haeryun Kim is a doctoral student in Education Policy, Organization & Leadership with a concentration in Educational Administration & Leadership. Her research interests are school organizational structures required for equity-focused reform, with an emphasis on principal leadership, teacher labor markets, school finance, and district governance. Haeryun uses quantitative methods to study how to design school personnel policies, distribute school finance, and structure education governance with the goal of respecting learner diversity and ensuring the inclusion of all students. 

    • Advisor: Dr. Paul Bruno
    • Expected Year of Graduation: 2027
    • Educational Background
      • Ph.D. student, Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Concentration: Educational Administration & Leadership
      • M.A., Educational Policy & Educational Administration, Chung-Ang University
      • B.A., Education, Chung-Ang UniversityDouble Major in English EducationMinor in Political Science and International RelationsExchange Student at University of Turku, located in Finland
    • LinkedIn:
  • Elena Sharafutdinova, Ed.D. Student

    Elena Sharafutdinova is an online doctoral student in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership program, with concentration in Learning Design and Leadership. Elena holds two Master’s degrees, one in teaching Italian as a second language and one in Linguistics. Her primary research interest is in SLA and pedagogy with a focus on Italian and e-learning. She has a book chapter (May 2022) in “Mind and second language acquisition: Experimental Approaches”. Currently, Elena teaches Italian at California State University and serves as a CSU QLT Systemwide online/hybrid course reviewer.

    Advisor: Dr. Mary Kalantzis

    Anticipated Graduation: 2024

    LinkedIn: Elena S.

    CV: Elena S.

  • Christian Holmes

    Christian is currently pursuing his Ed.D. in the Learning Design and Leadership concentration with a focus on how Self-Determination Theory can be leveraged to improve student engagement with their studies. 

    Christian is currently employed in Denver, Colorado as the Director of Innovation and Technology at The STEAD School, an innovative Project-Based Learning school housed in next-gen agriculture and CTE. 

  • Kelly Fishman, MEd

    Kelly Fishman is a doctoral student in the Education Policy, Organization, & Leadership program with a focus on Diversity & Equity in Education who is being mentored by advisor Dr. Curtis Mason. Her research focuses on sense of belonging in high school, black, male, special education students. She is currently the Anti-Defamation League's Education Director for Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, & Western Pennsylvania where she utilizes her more than a decade of experience as a pulic high school teacher to help schools implement anti-bias and anti-bullying programming for students of all ages. She plans to graduate in 2023. LinkedIn

  • Anna Shapoval

    Anna (Ganna) Shapoval is a doctoral student in the Education Policy, Organization and Leadership Program with a concentration in Global Studies in Education. Anna’s research focuses on identifying enablers and barriers that shape eLearning application in the continuous professional education (CPE) of medical practitioners during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ukraine, which exemplifies a LMIC context. Anna offers over 25 years of professional experience in the field of international development, capacity building, and adult education. Since 2013, Anna has served as the Country Director for the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) of the University of Washington (UW) in Ukraine.

  • Arianna Agramonte Holterman

    Arianna Agramonte Holterman is a doctoral student in the Higher Education graduate concentration. Their advisor is Dr. Denice Ward Hood. Arianna's research tends to focus on student retention and success within crisis or emergency situations. Currently they plan to utilize oral history methods to gather Latinx student success narratives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Arianna plans to graduate in Spring 2025.  Arianna has 16 years of experience in Higher Education and Student Affairs within areas such as University Housing, The Career Center, and Office of the Dean of Students. LinkedIn: www.linkedin/in/AriannaHolterman. 

  • H. M. Kuneyl M.A.Ed.

    Kuneyl (Ka-Neil) is a Ph.D. student in EPOL with dual concentrations in Higher Education and History of Education. Her research interest centers the history of two-year colleges which were founded in the Jim Crow South, minority serving institutions, and racially marginalized community college students. Kuneyl has served in higher education for over eight years and currently works as a graduate research assistant for the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL).

    Advisors: Dr. Baber, Lorenzo and Dr. Jon Hale 

    Education: Lone Star Community College (A.S.) Texas A&M University (B.S.) Virginia Tech (M.A.Ed.). 

    LinkedIn: H.M. Kuneyl | LinkedIn

  • Tara Adams, Ed.M., JD

    Tara is a Ph.D. student in EPOL with a concentration in higher education. Her research interests are focused specifically on the ethics of higher education fundraising, particularly when it comes to vulnerable donor populations like the elderly and cognitively impaired. Tara is currently the Director of Development at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and the co-founder of Cognitive Empowerment Consulting, a higher education and nonprofit consulting firm. 

    Advisor: Dr. Jennifer Delaney

    Education: Illinois State University (B.S.), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (J.D. & Ed.M.)


  • Wendy Mockler Giles

    Wendy is an expert teacher and university lecturer and tutor with a demonstrated history of working in schools and higher education. Skilled in interdisciplinary approaches, student-centred pedagogy, data analysis, and innovative assessment with an accent on building self-efficacy through challenge and engagement with a strong emphasis on building relationships. 

    Program of Study: Doctor of Education

    Research interests: The future of learning with e-learning ecologies; sustainable assessment and the new social contract with education; building teachers’ self-efficacy through identity work; integrated approaches to teaching and learning in the humanities, especially economics.

    Advisor: Professor William Cope

    Expected Year of Graduation: 2025

    LinkedIn profile


  • Gina Karlin

    Gina is pursuing an Ed.D in EPOL with a concentration in Global Studies. She is an experienced educator with a demonstrated history of working in the higher education industry. Her research is focused on international education policies and access to higher education for underserved communities. 

  • Aaron Schlessman (he/him)

    Aaron is a doctoral candidate in EPOL with a concentration in Diversity and Equity. He has nearly 20 years of experience in training and education, first as a training supervisor with the U.S. Navy then as a high school teacher, administrator, and instructional leader. Academically, he has completed all coursework and exams and has moved into the disseration phase. His primary interest is in establishing clear guideposts that can help to operationalize anti-racism for classroom teachers so they have a path to follow to ensure that their approach with all students is as racially equitable as possible. 

    Graduate Advisor: Dr. Denice Ward Hood 

    Expected Graduation Year: 2023

    Academic Background: 

    B.A. Justice Studies - Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, Illinois

    M.Ed. Educational Policy, Organization, & Leadership - University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois


  • Yaning Cao

    Yaning Cao is a doctoral student in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership. Her concentration is Global Studies and her research is in international higher education collaboration. Her work experience in a one joint-venture university in China leads her to consider efficient ways for higher education institutes to collaborate and in what ways education policy can benefit students to become global citizens in the future.

  • Nakisha Griffin, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, ACC

    Nakisha Griffin is an EDD student in the Human Resource Development concentration in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership.  She has over fifteen years of human resources leadership experience with a specialization in recruitment strategy, workforce planning, and organizational development. Her research interests are building world class human capital functions within startup organizations, connecting people and business strategies, and leadership team dynamics. Nakisha has over fifteen years of human resources leadership experience. She currently serves as the Head of Human Resources for Neustar Security Services based in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan. 

    Advisor: Wen-Hao (David) Huang

    Expected Year of Graduation: May 2026

    Educational Background:

    M.P.S.  in Human Resource Management,  University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT

    B.S. of Management Science,  Kean University, Union, NJ



  • Erich Stolz Spencer, EdD, MBA (he/him)

    Hello, I am Erich Stolz Spencer and I am a doctoral student in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership with a concentration in Human Resources Development and Diversity & Equity in Education. My intended research focuses on exploring the barriers to equitable development and performance management in our current workplace. Specifically, how does our current definition of effective talent development and performance rating systems exclude individuals that are traditionally underserved? As part of this, I would like to examine the traditional methods of talent development, and if these methods are rooted in bias not already identified. Professionally I currently lead Global Diversity & Inclusion for a large healthcare technology organization and I have previously taught Human Resources in the Health Services Management program at the University of Minnesota. 

    Graduate Advisor: Dr. Jessica (Jie) Li

    Expected Graduation Year: 2025

    Academic Background:

    EdD (in progress) Education Policy, Organization & Leadership – Human Resources Development / Diversity & Equity in Education – University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign - est. 2025

    MBA - Marketing - University of Toledo - 2009

    BBA - Human Resouces - University of Toledo - 2008