Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by David Kadlubowski
Dr. Yolanda Stokes spent so much time studying on the sofa during her doctoral journey, with her green-highlighted research papers splayed out, that her family nickname was “Sofa Girl.”
Her husband brought meals to her. Members of her doctoral committee at Grand Canyon University and other learners collaborated to help her. Now she’s paying it back by giving others advice – she wrote a manual, “Starting to Finish: A Doctoral Journey,” and is mentoring other doctoral candidates through the process.
Collaboration is a hallmark of the College of Doctoral Studies, enabling groups to share information and advice with peers online, gather in student-led groups at local coffee shops and meet during residencies on campus.
The Doctoral program’s DC Network, an innovative online community of dissertation templates, video conferences, blogs and other resources that launched in 2010, now generates more than 5 million page views a year and makes it easy to collaborate across the country.
Only 2% of the population has a doctoral degree because it’s difficult, said Dr. Ronald Berman, Assistant Dean. But a key aspect of reducing attrition, research shows, is having faculty or peer connections.
In the Phoenix area, five doctoral learner-led groups gather on Saturdays for coffee and talk about their research or doctoral journeys. “This is the reason all these clubs exist.
If you develop a relationship with another person you are more likely to stick around,” he said. “We don’t do it because we like a party – what we are trying to do is enable that collaboration.”
Stokes, 49, wrote a letter to herself before she started her doctoral journey that she pulled out when it got difficult. It read, “I’m starting to finish.” She didn’t want to dally; she said each year delayed means it is more likely you won’t finish.
She also found that she needed a plan and organization. Good thing her doctorate is in organizational leadership. She came up with a color-coding system – red, blue, green, yellow – to keep research straight during her nights on the sofa.
She prayed a lot, too, and GCU helped that with a residency professor who would be tough on her research but also pray with her.
“I want to help other people find a way; the way is in Him,” she said. “I tell people God isn’t a Sunday God. He is always around us. Just ask. He always has the right answer.”
Derek Rushing is a GCU doctoral learner she prays with and offers advice. The Mesa Community College professor said Stokes emphasizes organization, especially with research notes, and commitment.
“You go through a lot of emotions and unknowns that you come across, and you have to make sure it is your priority to be successful by being immersed in it on a daily basis,” Rushing said. “I recall hearing about her commitment – a seven-day thing in and around work, family and church. You have to prioritize and learn that place of balance for you.”
The DC Network, available to all learners, includes lectures on dissertations and video presentations by alumni who often tell personal, inspiring stories, such as one in February that 250 registered to watch, Berman said.
“People succeed because of grit. You don’t give up. So what we try to do is share these stories,” he said.
In doctoral education, the literature addresses isolation among learners who often juggle full-time jobs, a family and a ton of research for a dissertation, Berman said. “It’s a marathon and you are running it yourself, so the motivation aspects of this are really important.”
On the network’s forums, learners share their projects and get feedback.
“People respond and say, ‘This is what I found that may help you.’ If you find someone that has done something similar, it’s not going to save you a couple days or even a couple weeks, it could save you up to a year,” Berman said. “You talk about collaboration – this is the basis of it all.”
Other learners connect on the network to form local meeting groups. Dr. Sonya Berges’ group met at a café; others meet at coffee shops or libraries.
“It allowed me to make great strides, to overcome questions and just push forward and be motivated,” Berges said. “If I could point to a model that really, really works, it would be that one. It takes away the fear and a lot of the mystery.
“I’ve also watched other learners get over hurdles and be able to graduate by seeing there is hope at the end of this thing.”
Stokes’ dissertation was signed in January 2019, when she thought of her late father-in-law, a doctor who said before he died, “Who will be the next Dr. Stokes?”
“I can say I am the next Dr. Stokes,” she said with tears.
Now she inspires Rushing and others.
“One of the things she told me is that anything before completing this doctorate is just your opinion that may or may not count for a lot,” he said. “But as you are able to validate what you are saying and you have done the study, you can be considered a scholar.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-6764.
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