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Higher education often leaves a significant imprint on individuals, influencing not only their career path but also their perspective on life and contribution to society.

For Dr. Ali (Weller) Dutson ’05, Emmanuel College played a pivotal role in shaping her leadership journey in urban education.

Dr. Dutson discovered her passion for urban education during her pre-practicum at Mission Grammar School in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. The experience ignited her desire to make a difference in the lives of marginalized students and communities. She credits Emmanuel with providing opportunities to develop her philosophy and values as an educator. 

“I absolutely fell in love with the Mission Grammar community and urban education during my pre-practicum. I felt like it was where I was supposed to be. This community has really raised me as an educator,” she said. “And I really could not be more grateful to Emmanuel for that introduction. So much of who I am and where I have gone is because of Emmanuel. It has put me on this path toward how I can live out what God wants me to do.”

After Emmanuel, Dr. Dutson earned her master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She had a position lined up at a public school when Deirdre Bradley-Turner ’98, ’12G, then Assistant Director of Community Service and Service Learning at Emmanuel, suggested she meet with her sister, Maura Bradley-Gnanou '96, ‘99G, who was then the principal of Mission Grammar.

“We started the day with prayer and then I just spent the morning visiting every classroom and meeting the scholars. It was clearly such a special place,” Dr. Dutson said. (Students at Mission Grammar are referred to as “scholars.” In fact, Dr. Dutson's two children are Mission Grammar scholars.) “I said to myself, ‘I have to be part of this. I want to join this community.’”

And she did, beginning her career at Mission Grammar in 2006 as a fifth-grade teacher. She also served as a first-, sixth- and eighth-grade teacher, as well as literacy coordinator before becoming assistant principal in 2012 and principal in 2014 — when she was seven months pregnant with her first child. The school shifted leadership models in 2014, and Dr. Dutson became president. The position allows her to focus on strategy and the school’s future.

“We needed someone who could step out of the day to day and be more strategy focused, thinking about how we are aligning our fundraising with our mission and fostering continued growth,” she said.

As the president of Mission Grammar, Dr. Dutson has spearheaded initiatives to expand enrollment and enhance early childhood programs, so students have access to resources, opportunities, and supportive networks from an early age.

“It’s critical that all children have access to a high-quality early education for the success not only of our children, but also our world; 85% of brain development happens before kids turn two-and-a-half years old,” she said.

So much of who I am and where I have gone is because of Emmanuel. It has put me on this path toward how I can live out what God wants me to do.

An Enduring Legacy

Reflecting on her Emmanuel College experience, Dr. Dutson acknowledged the mentors and educators who shaped her views on education, particularly Sister Karen Hokanson, SNDdeN, Dean of Education, and Sister Anne Donovan, SNDdeN, Treasurer of the College, who, with a grant from the Lynch Foundation, established the Carol A. Lynch Institute at Emmanuel in 2002. The Institute provides educators a range of collaborative programs and services that enhance the professional development of urban teachers and enrich the education of PK-12 students in the city of Boston and other urban areas.

“The model that Sister Janet and Sister Anne created at Emmanuel is so innovative and groundbreaking. They're two women who had limited resources, but they continued to use those resources in the most brilliant ways that enabled the school to thrive," Dr. Dutson said. "And I couldn't be more impressed and inspired by what they have done to secure the future.”

Dr. Dutson draws on Sister Janet and Sister Anne's leadership example as she charts the future for Mission Grammar.

“At Mission Grammar, we’re thinking about what is the future? What are the resources we have? And how are we going to ensure that we're here for the next 150 years? I give all the credit in the world to Sister Janet and Sister Anne because these two women, two nuns and education leaders in Boston, really shook things up in groundbreaking ways," she recalled. "They have been examples and role models for me. Being the president of Mission Grammar, I’m able to move forward because they've gone before me.”

While Sister Janet and Sister Anne have influenced Dr. Dutson professionally, she fondly acknowledges Sister Mary Johnson, SNDdeN, for instilling in her a deep sense of social justice, equity, and community engagement.

“This amazing woman first introduced me to the Catholic Social Teachings at Emmanuel College through action. She took me to my first protest, leading a march to the Common,” Dr. Dutson recalled. “She taught me to fight for the marginalized, provide dignity for the human person, speak my truth with love, to better understand white privilege, to listen, to constantly reflect, to serve others and challenge those standing in the way of love and justice.”

Balancing a career and family, Dr. Dutson recently defended her doctoral thesis and will receive her Ph.D. from Boston College in May. Her research focused on leadership for social justice, access, and opportunity in education. She explored the critical role of cross-sector collaboration in fostering equitable access and opportunities for marginalized students, encompassing diverse backgrounds and communities.

Dr. Dutson’s leadership and advocacy serve as a testament to the enduring influence of institutions like Emmanuel College in nurturing educators who are committed to creating a more equitable and inclusive future for all learners.