Harsha Perera fulfilled his lifelong American dream by moving to “the States” from Australia to join the UNLV faculty in 2016. Today the professor of educational psychology and higher education spends his days researching why students pursue certain lines of study and his weekends exploring Southern Nevada with his family.
What drew you to UNLV?
I always had the American dream for as long as I can remember — even coming from Australia, which was a reasonable match in terms of societal order and democracy.
I traveled here when I was 17 and made the commitment to come back in some capacity. At the time I didn’t realize that the capacity would be as an academic. The heavy draw to come to UNLV in particular was Gregg Schraw (a professor who since has passed away). He was a major player in education psychology.
On the way home (from my interview), professor LeAnn Putney sent me a message saying, “Remember Gregg’s here” and also sent me a table of educational psychology program rankings. At the time, UNLV was sitting 17th in the world, and my institution, where I was teaching, the University of New South Wales, was sitting 20th. So Gregg Schraw and the table convinced me.
How do you feel about that decision?
I’ve since found out it was the right decision not least because of the cultural salad bowl — the ability to work with a school district that is going to resemble what all school districts will look like in several decades is a major drawing card.
What is the focus of your research?
I develop advanced statistical models to understand educational choices – why students choose a pathway in advanced mathematics as opposed to choosing a pathway in the arts, for instance. I think historically in educational psychology the focus has been on achievement — and it still is. Raising standardized achievement test scores, increasing class grades — those are all a means toward an end. That end is the future — choosing your pathway, where you’re going to be in 20 years’ time. Our preparation programs, I think, need to better emphasize choice. Because once you get into the workforce, if you’ve made bad choices you probably aren’t going to be very satisfied with what you’re doing, which is going to have implications for other areas of your life. What are the influences that parents and teachers are having on the choices that these students are making?
We have a project that we’ve just submitted for a National Science Foundation grant called the Innovative Middle School Project. It draws on data from 10 underperforming and underserved middle schools and eight elementary schools in the Clark County School District. The aim of the research program is to detect what effects teachers are having on student choices.
Tell us about your family.
My wife, Monique, and I have four children: Johan, 4 months; Jacobus, 2 and a half; Marissa, 6; and Sienna 11.
We do a lot of nature walk-type things. We have a membership at the Springs Preserve and head out there quite often. We also go to the Nevada State Museum. The kids like the dinosaurs and I like the modern Nevada history.
I like English Premier League Soccer. If I was offered the opportunity for early retirement, I would move to the United Kingdom and spend my weekends watching it. We call it football in the United Kingdom but I’ve learned not to do that here. I like the EPL because it’s fast-paced but with increasing continental influence.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
Slackers. The lack of investment and effort. I follow the mantra of 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration.
A book, TV show, movie, or podcast to recommend?
My favorite is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I read it when I was 13 or 14. He changed my perspective on dystopian fiction. I could imagine a future that was saturated with technology without soul, without heart.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
Most folks are surprised that I specialized in Elizabethan revenge tragedy as an undergraduate. I wanted to take a PhD in it, but was promptly told by my mom that that would not have a good career outcome. I decided to apply myself to something a little more practical. I also have a good background in theater and theater studies. I was a theater critic as an undergraduate.
What would you choose to eat for your last meal?
It would be a Kerala fish curry from southern India. The aroma is what makes it special. You sort of eat with the smell; there is a heightened sensory experience before you even taste. That is what’s special about the food of southern India.