Dr. Volha (Olga) Chykina

October 6, 2020
A Q&A with a new assistant professor of leadership studies

Dr. Volha (Olga) Chykina joined the Jepson School of Leadership Studies in August as an assistant professor of leadership studies. Her scholarship focuses on educational inequalities and social justice. This semester, she is teaching two sections of Leadership and the Social Sciences (LDST 102). 

What brought you to the United States and to the study of education?

I grew up in Belarus. After getting a B.A. in foreign language instruction for secondary education from the Minsk State Linguistic University, I taught English to adults and teens at a private language academy in Belarus. I immigrated to the United States when I was 24 and then decided to get more education—partly for economic reasons and partly because I knew that higher education in America is so good. 

In Belarus, education focuses on training you for a job; in the United States, it teaches you to think. U.S. higher education teaches students how to adapt and change their skills to meet the requirements of jobs that haven’t been imagined yet. The liberal arts, in particular, offers students the chance to debate, to argue over data and take different perspectives. This exchange of ideas is necessary to bring about positive change in the world. 

What is the focus of your research?

My research focuses on educational inequality and how certain familial or societal characteristics might improve student achievement in school and college. What characteristics make students more likely to go to college? Recently, I’ve focused more on immigrants and minority students. My research has shown that immigrant students achieve more in schools and in careers when they live in countries with more pro-immigrant policies. My work on this issue has become more relevant in light of the rise of populism around the world.

I’ve also been looking at human rights on college campuses. My hypothesis is that minority students will do better on campuses with more of a human rights focus. To test this hypothesis, my colleagues and I are assessing the status of human rights on college campuses, including how committed universities are to faculty diversity, sustainability, offering human-rights-focused curriculum and programming, and ensuring that faculty and students can freely exercise their human rights on campus. Once we determine which universities have the best human rights status, we can see whether minority students are doing better at those universities. 

How does your scholarship connect to leadership studies?

Leadership is about power—how people get power, how people wield power. While becoming a leader does not equate to occupying a formal leadership position in an organization, your ability to emerge as a leader in the context of a job or an organization often directly relates to the quality of your education. Therefore, studying inequality in education is very important. Who gets or doesn’t get a good education clearly correlates to who gets or doesn’t get to lead within many organizations.