As a graduate from a ‘traditional’ university where the admissions process was somewhat rigorous (or existed as some form of hazing) and a higher education faculty member that has worked with students in both ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ [read: for-profit] settings, I have first hand knowledge of and experience with the students that matriculate in both academies. What my experiences have taught me is that no matter the score on the GRE, the success and scholarship of the [doctoral level] student often are determined by a number of factors. Some of these factors include the rigor of the program, skill and dedication of the student, support of critical friends and family, and the leadership of the faculty and mentoring of the dissertation chair.
Within the last week, I have had the opportunity to see four of my students complete their final dissertation defenses. Yes, FOUR. For most of my colleagues in traditional settings, this number is extremely high – especially for a week’s worth of defenses. However, this is not uncommon for the non-traditional setting. So yes, I’ve been very overworked at times. But no matter the load, the goal is always to nurture scholarship and excellence. Each of the four students had exemplary defenses – and I do mean exemplary. However, today’s defense is what moved me the most and reminded me of why I do what I do.
James [a pseudonym] has been a student at the university since 2007[?]. As a matter of fact, he and I knew each other prior to me becoming a faculty member at the university. I was his editor when I was a doctoral student. Throughout the years, I have given him writing lessons and tips, encouragement, honest critique, and unwavering support. And today, I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of his presentation and the structure of his dissertation. So much so, that I smiled from ear to ear as he presented. He was poised. He was knowledgeable. He was the expert. He was a scholar. And I couldn’t have been more proud. At the end of his defense, the committee provided feedback and the audience commented and asked questions. Then I provided minimal feedback and ended the statement with the following sentence: “I’m going to break protocol here because normally we would ask everyone to leave the room before making an announcement. However, I don’t think that’s necessary because the committee seems to agree…congratulations Dr.” The audience clapped and he put his head on the podium and cried.
Crying during a defense or at any other point during the dissertation process is not an anomalous act. The dissertation process is tedious. It’s draining. It’s emotional. However, I knew that James’ tears meant something more than most of us understood at that moment. When he’d first contacted me regarding editing, his writing was mediocre, at best. His ideas were good but the ability to translate those ideas to paper was insufficient. Two years ago when he was in my advanced qualitative class, I advised him to select another topic and continue to work with an editor because of his overwhelming subjectivity and much-needed writing assistance. When I was assigned as his dissertation chair, I thought, “Oh goodness. This is going to be a journey.” And it was; yet, throughout the journey, he remained positive. He was receptive to criticism. He expanded his literature review when instructed to do so. He revised Chapter Four from beginning to end. No matter how many comments I added to his drafts and no matter the number of times I said or wrote: “Delete this.” or “Rewrite this.” he remained steadfast in his journey. He was on campus like he was employed there. Occasionally, he’d stop by just to talk football or check in. He never gave up. And he did it with a smile and an occasional “Roll Tide” (although he is an Auburn fan and graduate).
For those reasons, I understood his tears and fought hard to contain my own. His tears meant that there is success in the non-traditional university. His tears meant that with appropriate instruction, guidance and self-determination, non-traditional students have the capacity to be competitive scholars in their fields. His tears meant that the relationship between a student and his or her faculty mentor or dissertation chair can be one of the most significant factors in the student’s success.
Yes, there are a number of stigmas associated with attending, graduating from, or instructing at a non-traditional university. Yes, there is some truth to some stereotypes based on the university, the campus, the faculty, and so on. However, what I have learned both as a graduate student and faculty member is that stigmas and stereotypes are no match for a student’s resilience and a professor’s determination. Where those factors intersect, successful scholarship is bound to happen.