Encouraging imagination in others

By Maria Iacobo

Cecilé Sadler pays it forward.

“I have been fortunate to have had each stage of my personal story shaped by a series of people who saw something in me and were generous enough to pour into me,” says Cecilé Sadler, a current graduate student in the Media Arts and Sciences (MAS) program and with the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group. “I consider it an honor to have the opportunity to be that same connecting link for others.”

Sadler was one of three students recognized with the 2023 Priscilla King Gray Public Service Award at the annual MIT Awards Convocation. The MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center says its award committee was “impressed by Cecilé’s commitment to public service through diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging…It was clear to the award committee that Cecilé encompasses the pillars of social change and impact.”

Encouragement and support by mentors while an undergraduate studying computer engineering at North Carolina State and graduate student at Duke University pushed Sadler to apply to MIT — a place where she says she had never dreamed of seeing herself — and pursue her dual passions of working in technology and working with young people.

“Your frame of reference to the world and for what is possible can be so small — especially when you don’t know anyone who is doing these things,” she says. “But I think there is power in seeing people who look like you, are encouraging, and are already in these spaces. That’s who I try to be when I interact with anyone who is a prospective student or a young dreamer.”

Once at MIT, Sadler sought opportunities to engage in public service on and off campus. Her engagements at MIT and in community are about “opening doors, removing barriers, and unveiling the boundless possibilities that lie within reach, transforming them into tangible realities." Sadler worked with two programs: the GradCatalyst program in the MIT Office of Graduate Education and blackyard, a grassroots Cambridge-based community organization that provides after-school programming that centers Black youth.

GradCatalyst offers student-led workshops where current MIT graduate students connect online with prospective students, especially students who are underrepresented, to answer questions and provide advice on how to apply to MIT. Sadler says she recognizes how difficult it is for many prospective students to visualize themselves at MIT.

“People fail to realize that some people don’t even have the same opportunities to have the same dreams,” says Sadler. “I let them know that you can absolutely do what you put your mind to, but you must know that the possibilities are out there. I try to dispel the myth that you don’t belong. In fact, we want you here. The space is better with you here.”

With blackyard, Sadler works with youth between the ages of seven and eleven designing and facilitating creative learning experiences that introduce opportunities to learn with and about technology “that are joyful and empowering.” What was initially an effort to connect with and serve her new community evolved into her master’s thesis: studying how to design learning environments that cultivate radical imagination in Black youth.

“Oftentimes in research, non-dominant youth are studied as objects often with deficit perspectives,” Sadler says. “My thesis is an opportunity to challenge that approach by directly centering stories of Black youth and the spaces they occupy to amplify the value that their lived experiences add to what we know to be true about education and learning.”

Sadler says she was unaware that she had been nominated for the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Awardand was pleasantly surprised to learn that she had been selected. While the recognition was wonderful, Sadler says it’s not the motivation for her work in public service.

“One of my central values as a person is that I strongly believe that — no matter what you do — you have a duty and an obligation to serve,” Sadler says. “I’m grateful to be in a research group and an academic space where that is something that is uplifted and viewed as real research and real work.”

After receiving her master’s at Commencement, Sadler will continue her work in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, pursuing a doctoral degree and contributing to public service projects.