Foster care, homeless, dyslexic ... and a doctorate

By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau

In high school, Dr. Danisha Keating had a conversation with a school counselor that would change the trajectory of her life.

“You’re going to fail out and you’re not going to be anybody,” she remembers him telling her. “You’re going to end up pregnant, dropping out of high school, and that’s your statistic.

Dr. Danisha Keating recently completed her Ph.D. in General Psychology with an Emphasis in Cognition and Instruction.

“You’re a statistic and I’m not putting time into you.”

As a foster child who entered the system as a teenager, Keating (formerly Mayfield) was told time and time again what the rest of her life would look like. Before high school, she had no educational experience outside of home schooling, she could not read until she was 9 years old because of her dyslexia and she struggled to maintain passing grades.

Despite the odds against her, she was determined to prove him wrong.

Now, just a little more than 12 years later, Keating has accomplished an academic achievement only 4% of U.S. adults can claim – earning a doctorate. She successfully defended her dissertation for her Ph.D. in General Psychology with an Emphasis in Cognition and Instruction.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, she completed her College of Doctoral Studies program in exactly three years, five months and 11 days.

“For a Ph.D., that’s not normal,” she said. “There was a lot I had to do to be able to get there.”

Like everything else in her academic career, she set her sights on what she wanted and gave it her all until she got to the finish line. But it wasn’t without its share of obstacles.

Turning 18 in the foster care system can result in even more struggles for those teenagers.

“I aged out at 18 so I never was placed, and I was never given back to my parents,” she said. “They were just kind of like, ‘OK, your file’s closed.’ but there was no follow up or anything. There was no prep for college, and I was kind of like a lost cause. People were all like, ‘You’ll be fine on your own. You’re old enough to figure it out.’”

Keating enrolled in community college but failed her first semester as a result of trying to manage a full-time job and her studies. She had to transition to part-time to get her grades back on track, and that created a new problem – homelessness.

“Homelessness kind of just happened because being a foster care kid, the reality is that you don’t have that support to really go back to,” she said.

For five years, she went from living in her car to house hopping before she finally was able to afford a place of her own. By this time, she had also made the transition from her associates program into her bachelor’s program.

Six months into moving into her own one-bedroom, one-bathroom, 500-square-foot apartment, she had to take on a new set of responsibilities at age 24: As the fourth of 11 children, she had to assume guardianship of five younger siblings, three of them under 18.

“At 24, people are planning their life,” she said. “Overnight, I got a call that was like, ‘You need to come pick these kids up.’

“I was instantly a mom and instantly was putting them into schools and getting their lives together while still trying to finish school and work and figure all this stuff out.”

It lengthened the completion of her bachelor’s to eight years, but she managed to graduate with a 2.7 GPA. 

To continue her educational journey, she had to petition to be granted acceptance into a master’s program. It was around this time that Keating met her future husband and biggest supporter, Mark, on a Christian dating site.

After completing her master’s program in a year with a 3.8 GPA, she took three months off before jumping into her Ph.D. After she thoroughly researched several doctoral programs and received multiple recommendations, Grand Canyon University caught her attention.

“I talked to probably about 10 different Ph.D. programs, and GCU is the only one that would give templates, they had the committee early, they had residencies and they really did want to help students get done as fast as the student wants to get done,” she said. “They were really honest with us about timelines and were like, ‘Hey, just letting you know this is what it looks like.’ And that set me up for success because I knew what to expect.

“It was neat to see from day one to the last day that that level of care was there.”

Throughout this time, Keating learned more about her dyslexia and how to cope with it.

“It was that barrier that hurt me emotionally because it was like, ‘Well, if I can’t get through this class, my whole future is over.’ It was like a doomsday thought all the time,” she said. “It took a long time and it still sometimes bugs me, but it helps me to be able to coach other students now.”

Keating hopes to use her degree for just that -- coaching.

“I want to jump into a role where I can help other students succeed and be there as a support because college is so difficult,” she said. “It’s overwhelming, and there are a lot of students out there who don’t have people to support them.”

As the first of her siblings to get a college degree and the first on either side of her family to complete a doctorate, she also hopes to set an example for her siblings and others as to what can be possible for kids who grow up under similar circumstances.

“I wanted to do it for myself but also my siblings, other foster care kids and other people who are like, ‘I want to do this I just don’t know how,’” she said. “You can do anything if you put the work in. It’s not just if you believe it. If you put the work in and are dedicated to the learning process, you can do that for yourself.”

Through the power of education, she was able to completely change the trajectory of her and her family’s lives. She has inspired several of her siblings to at least earn a high school diploma.

And Keating says she has reached this point of her academic career thanks to GCU.

“Because of GCU’s program and the way they have it set up, I was able to get through it with the most support,” she said. “If it wasn’t for GCU’s doctoral program and the way that it’s structured, I would not have been able to know where to start. I don’t think I would have been successful anywhere else.”

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: What a journey: There was danger in this doctorate

GCU Today: Her doctoral chair’s support was key to graduation

GCU Today: From young bride to doctorate: an inspiring story


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