On the Rutgers–Camden Campus, where she is a candidate for a Ph.D. in childhood studies, Lara has found “the perfect fit” to fulfill her long-held goals. She had published several children’s books and earned two master’s degrees—in children’s literature and creative writing—but wanted a deeper understanding of children and the way they experience books. With the critical study of children still new, the Manila native was uncertain about how to pursue her academic interests. Until, that is, she learned that Rutgers was to launch the nation’s first doctoral program in childhood studies in 2007.
Lara applied for the program’s inaugural class. She also learned about a second new initiative, Rutgers’ Presidential Fellows program, which provides annual stipends and tuition reimbursement to highly talented doctoral students. “I was not very confident in myself as a scholar,” says Lara. “I thought, ‘Wow, a fellowship would be nice, but fat chance.’ ” The news that she had been named a Presidential Fellow was “a real morale boost. Rutgers extended a faith in me that I did not have in myself.”
The program at Rutgers–Camden brings together scholars from many different disciplines—psychology, sociology, education, law, and more—for the critical study of children and childhood. An intellectual engagement with professors and fellow students of widely divergent viewpoints and backgrounds, Lara says, has challenged many of her ideas about children as readers and subjects of books. “Children are complex beings, and children’s books should acknowledge this complexity,” she says.
Her new insights are reflected not only in her recent creative work (she has four picture books coming out this year) but also in the expanding possibilities she sees before her. Inspired, in part, by the community outreach work of the campus’s Center for Children and Childhood Studies, she now hopes to combine an academic career with literature-based programs that improve the lives of underserved children.
Like Dahl’s Charlie catching the first glint of the golden ticket beneath the chocolate-bar wrapper, Lara sometimes finds it hard to believe her good fortune. “I am still amazed that an institution like Rutgers would support me in discovering my passions in life.”