It's a deluge of doctorates for GCU faculty members

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Rick D'Elia
GCU News Bureau

Dr. Ben VanDerLinden loves teaching at Grand Canyon University. The chairman of the Mathematics Department loves the campus he first saw in 1984 and first attended as a student in 1990.

But he especially loves Commencement.

Dr. Ben VanDerLinden was extra emotional Thursday at Commencement -- because he was in it this time.

“Graduation, to me, is it,” he said. “I love regalia. I love the look. This is why we do this. Every time we do graduation, as a faculty, I love the emotion. I love how people feel.

“People are changing their life. It’s one moment to another. Those things have meaning. God takes those moments to say, ‘Hey, here you go. This is what I had for you and that was great. It’s OK to finish, and now I’ll have something else, but I want you to wait for a little bit and rest in the celebration, rest in the joy of the moment.’

“If you don’t get emotional, I think something is kind of wrong.”

But Thursday, he had a few extra tears … because he was one of the graduates. VanDerLinden was one of six GCU faculty members who were conferred their doctoral degrees.

“I’m very emotional today. On my mask I’ve got little cry lines that are drying out,” he said, laughing at his crying.

From left, Dr. Emily Pottinger, Dr. Tracy Vasquez, Dr. Stacy Vaught and Dr. Alicia Kozimor from the College of Education gathered on the Quad before Commencement.

VanDerLinden wasn't the only College of Humanities and Social Sciences faculty member to take home a doctorate. Joining him was Assistant Professor Dr. Andrea Hogan.

The other four faculty members are longtime employees in the College of Education – it's a first to have that many from one college, as far as Dr. Michael Berger, Dean of the College of Doctoral Studies, could remember. Dr. Emily Pottinger, Dr. Stacy Vaught, Dr. Alicia Kozimor and Dr. Tracy Vasquez broke the mold.

“It’s great to educate our own community and watch them be successful at the hardest thing you can do in academia,” Berger said. “I’m glad we can be there to support them, same as we can any of these other students.

“It sounds like they all worked together. I’ve talked to five or seven different people this morning, asking, ‘What got you through?’ And almost everyone says something like, ‘Connections, support, community.’ It sounds for those four that’s 100% what got them through, too.”

He was 100% right.

Vaught saw the benefit in the way the faculty members checked in with each other during the dissertation process.

“It does make it so much better that we get to do this walk all together because at the very end we all were checking in with each other: ‘Where you at? How you doin’? How’s it going?’” Vaught said.

The faculty members told varying stories of how long it took them to complete their doctorates, but they have one thing in common: the perseverance it demands.

VanDerLinden needed eight years. “It took a little longer than I wanted, necessarily, but at the same time, I’ve done a lot of life and God has blessed me with a lot of cool stuff and I’ve gotten some cool opportunities,” he said.

Hogan, Pottinger, Vaught and Kozimor all gave birth to at least one child while conceiving their dissertations. This might not exactly be a news flash, but having a baby and trying to do a doctorate probably aren’t the best match.

Not only did Hogan have to deal with a pregnancy and toddlers during her six-year journey -- she had to care for her father before he passed away. "As I reflect back on that time, I am so thankful for my doctoral classes," she said. "Sometimes they were a welcomed break from my personal reality." 

Vaught, COE's Assistant Director of Academic Programs, needed 4½ years. “I got married, had a baby, and I just had a goal and wasn’t going to stop until it was done,” she said.

It took Pottinger about 10 years to get to this moment -- being hooded at Commencement.

Kozimor, the COE Faculty Chair, finished in the shortest amount of time, a tick under four years.

“I took about a 30-day break after my daughter was born and then right back to it,” she said. “I just knew that if I took a longer break, I would not come back – not because I didn’t love it, but because you get overwhelmed.

“I think you just incorporate scholarship into your everyday life. If you just keep going, it’s like a normal thing.”

Pottinger, on the other hand, had to spread it out over the better part of a decade.

“I like to say it was a wedding, two babies and four job changes worth of work,” the COE Assistant Dean said. “It was a journey, for sure, and what better way to celebrate it than with my friends and colleagues?”

Vasquez, Professional Growth and Development Chair for COE, finished in about six years and said she couldn’t have done it without the support of family and friends. But the sisterhood in COE was extra special.

“It’s nice having the support of these ladies, and I think it has just been a great knowledge shift for our whole college because we’ve been able to bring all of these research-based practices into our workplace,” she said.

Therein lies the other piece in the COE collaboration.

Kozimor shows the emotion of the moment as she walks off the stage behind Pottinger.

Interestingly, four of them earned philosophy degrees – Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology: Cognition and Instruction for Pottinger and Vaught, Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology: Integrating Technology, Learning and Psychology for Vasquez and Hogan. Kozimor’s degree is Doctor of Education in Teaching and Learning: Adult Learning.

And there’s another correlation: Pottinger, Vasquez and Kozimor all centered their dissertations on online instruction. Pottinger is eager to implement the ideas they discovered during their research.

“When I started, I was in a different role and had different research objectives in mind. I think they’ve shifted over the years but are still very applicable because they have to all do with how we assess our online students,” she said.

“In College of Ed, our online population is very large, so it’s really important that we understand the pedagogy and how we reassess our students. But the bigger picture behind it was to become a researcher, understand the process and apply that to my current role and future research and collaborating with my colleagues.”

There’s yet another link in the six faculty doctorates: VanDerLinden went the same Philosophy/Cognition and Instruction route as Pottinger and Vaught. His dissertation was titled, “Effectiveness of Using Productive Failure Pedagogy in Undergraduate Mathematics Courses.”

And how does he plan to use that?

Vasquez knows how hard all of the doctoral graduates worked.

“When I finished in August, I had a little panic attack of my life, just kind of like, ‘What am I going to do next?’” he said. “I actually don’t know. I mean, I love psychology, but I love to teach. I happen to teach mathematics because it’s the degree I had, and it’s fun to watch students get it, but I just love teaching.”

They loved being part of the ceremony but also found joy in sharing the accomplishment with the other doctoral grads. “Everyone walking across that stage has gone through something similar,” Pottinger said.

To which Vasquez added, “We’re proud of each other, and we’re proud that other people can partake in that scholarly achievement that we have. I found that, for me, it kind of becomes a mind shift. It’s something that I’ve adopted into the way that I work and the way that I think and actually something I studied during my dissertation process – it’s also a part of my everyday work life.

Dr. Andrea Hogan gets a hug from her children on her big day.

“It’s that concept of social support and knowledge sharing with our teacher candidates. This is just the beginning of our scholarly achievements.”

And it's just the beginning of more doctorates for COE faculty. Several more are in the pipeline, and Berger will be more than happy to sign their dissertations, too.

“I’ve done a lot of surprise dissertation signings in the past couple of months,” he said – one of them was Pottinger’s at the COE kickoff last month. “Those are always great. I’ll disrupt my entire schedule just to be able to do those because that’s why we’re all here.”

Sometimes six at a time.


Related content:

GCU Today: College of Education leaders earn 4 doctorates

GCU Today: God is star of graduate's 'supernatural encounter'

GCU Today: First cohort set to battle mental health crisis

GCU Today: Degree of success: Online program changed his life

GCU Today: Doubly special: Mother, daughter graduate together

GCU Today: Grads go far to applaud in-person Commencement

GCU Today: Commencement to culminate her 16-year journey

GCU Today: Graduates finally walk stage in 1st of 7 ceremonies


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