Jon Hoerl’s odyssey toward earning his doctorate at Grand Canyon University was so tedious that his family was beginning to wonder whether he would complete his requirements.
“My kids give me a lot of (flak) because they were saying, ‘Dad, you said you were going to finish for like the last four years,’" Hoerl recalled during a call from Durango, Colo. “I don’t think they honestly believed me when I told them I had gotten through, and they always joked that Mom was going to beat me anyway.”
The timing could not have worked out more splendidly for Jon and his wife, Marcia, who plan to participate in graduation ceremonies at GCU.
Six ceremonies will span Oct. 18-20 in GCU Arena.
“Working with Jon and Marcia was a pleasure,” said Dr. Roselyn Polk, their dissertation committee chair. “And (they’re) great role models to their children and students.”
Jon and Marcia successfully defended their dissertations, which were signed by Dr. Michael Berger, Dean of the College of Doctoral Studies, on Sept. 14.
The Hoerls’ path to a doctorate was far from linear, but their persistence without sacrificing their parental obligations to their four children or their duties as school principals make their sprint to their educational finish line amazing.
“We still were present at all of our kids’ games and events,” said Jon, who is in his eighth year as principal at Durango High School. “It does help that the kids are in my school system, so we are able to navigate and manipulate that a little bit.
“A lot of the time it was, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad are doing some schoolwork so they're not available for the next couple hours,’ and we have (the study time) staggered out, so it wasn't necessarily both of us doing it at the same time.”
The Hoerls’ four children, ages 18, 16, 14 and 11, have teased their father for the last four years about not completing his dissertation and joked that their mother was going to earn her doctorate sooner.
But their journey might have subtly set a solid work ethic.
“I think they saw the value of hard work and the value of making a schedule work, and sometimes they would sit with us and get their own work done,” Marcia said.
The Hoerls’ biggest loss was sleep, but Jon maintained his mission to pay tribute to his father, Dick, who passed away nearly 12 years ago but had a zest for learning. Dick and his wife, Jean, earned their doctorates in psychology, and Dick also earned a master's in business administrtion while maintaining his psychology practice in a Denver suburb.
“That’s why I’ve grinded and stuck through this for eight years. To finally complete the process was to honor my dad,” Jon said.
Marcia, in her second year as principal at Bayfield Middle School (25 minutes east of Durango), taught social studies for 18 years in Cherry Creek, Colorado, and professed a love for learning.
But she elected to pursue a doctorate to try something different and become “more relevant” once the family moved to Durango.
“And Jon was in the program, so he recommended (GCU),” Marcia said.
Marcia followed her husband, who was swayed by the support offered through the entire process – especially from Polk.
“I'm very fortunate that my wife got into the program because I didn't really know what a great, accomplished chair should look like until I saw Dr. Polk working with my wife,” Jon said. “And I was at the moment where I realized I need to get the GOAT, the greatest of all time, to be my chair.”
Jon submitted a petition to the College of Doctoral Studies for Polk to work with him, which was approved.
“And if it wasn't for (Polk), I probably guarantee I would not have gotten through,” Jon said.
Polk deflected the credit to the Hoerls.
Marcia’s phenomenology study “really hit a social issue in education, given the unprecedented turnover that is occurring among principals in education,” Polk observed, adding that Marcia is “very focused and to the point. This was really evident as we worked to revise the results and incorporate more narrative.”
Polk said she never doubted Jon would finish his doctoral dissertation, despite his educational and parental obligations, and was delighted his petition for her to serve as his chair was accepted.
“Our conversations were always about what needed to be done, and he got it done despite his schedule,” Polk said.
Each doctoral candidate has his or her own timetable, based on their skill set and family-life-job challenges. Polk believes students can finish quicker with consistent and effective mentoring.
Jon, however, faced hurdles with his job, as well as multiple chairs and methodologists that “greatly impacted his forward momentum.”
The October graduation will complete a remarkable journey for the Hoerls, who made the transition from Cherry Creek, an affluent Denver neighborhood, to rural Durango in 2016.
“It was the perfect place to bring a family,” said Jon, citing the value of family and work-life balance. “So that was something that was a great value to us to come to an area that had value and also was supportive to what we were trying to accomplish as building leaders.”
GCU Senior Writer Mark Gonzales can be reached at [email protected]