Teaching and Learning doctorate filled with lessons

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

One of the highlights of Monday’s makeup Commencement ceremony at Grand Canyon University was the hooding of Dr. Kelly Maguire as the College of Doctoral Studies’ first graduate of its Doctor of Education program in Teaching and Learning.

It’s a story that begins on a Greyhound bus.

Maguire, who was Kelly Pierce at the time, was heading back to Tucson to try to rectify her 1.5 GPA after her first semester at the University of Arizona. The first member of her family to attend college, she was on academic probation. Her scholarships had been revoked. Nothing she tried was working.

The story of Dr. Kelly Maguire's doctorate is one of support and perseverance -- she was there for her husband, Joe, through his career in the Marines and then he returned the favor during her doctoral work.

“I just didn’t know how to be a college student,” she said.

Then she got on that bus at the Phoenix terminal and sat next to Joe Maguire, who was in the Naval Academy.

“We talked and talked, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this young man has goals, dreams, things that he was going to achieve,’” she recalled. “I thought, ‘OK, that’s what I want to be like.’”

Joe went on to the Marine Corps, and Kelly went on to become his wife and to earn a bachelor’s in elementary education as well as two master’s degrees, in elementary ed and in English.

She had spent almost her entire life in Phoenix before she met Joe, her family having moved here when she was 2 months old and settling into the same house, at 12th Street and Indian School Road, where her mother grew up.

It was a priority to make private education possible for the four children (three girls and a boy). Her mom drove the school bus to help pay the tuition, and Kelly settled in happily at St. Francis Elementary School and St. Mary’s High School. Even after she went to U of A, her grandmother would mail her $20 bills.

But now it was time to travel, and Joe’s military duty took the couple to various regions of the United States. Kelly was an elementary school teacher everywhere, from Phoenix to Florida to Kentucky to Hawaii and back to Arizona.

The toughest move of all was going from a special education school at Pearl Harbor and settling in dusty Yuma, Arizona, where they were greeted by a high temperature of 113 degrees on their first day. “So much for the ocean,” she said with a laugh. 

But she eventually wound up teaching at a charter school in Gilbert, and her master’s in English opened the door to the dual-enrollment program at GCU. She took two English classes while teaching the same material.

Monday's ceremony was the fourth of seven makeup Commencements being staged by GCU this fall.

That, in turn, opened the door to working at GCU, where she is in her sixth year as an adjunct instructor, teaching the only two courses offered to future junior high and high school English teachers – English 470 (Metrics for Teaching Literature) and English 472 (Metrics for Teaching Writing).

She knew the University well. Her sister Ann is a GCU graduate, and her dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dr. Sherman Elliott, is a former educator at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix. On top of that, Elliott’s wife was Ann’s principal at St. Francis Elementary.

“Coming to GCU almost felt like family,” Kelly said.

The family feeling inspired her to rekindle her desire for a doctorate, and that’s where Joe’s servant-like spirit enters the story – along with a bit of fate.

When Joe retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel after 30 years of service, he said to Kelly, “It’s your turn. You have supported me in everything I’ve ever done, since I graduated from the Naval Academy and all of the adventures we’ve been on with the Marine Corps. If you really do want to pursue your doctorate, let’s just do it. Go for it.”

It was an easy decision for him. After all, she had done the exact same thing for all those years, moving with him as needed and tending to the family while he did two tours of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I really appreciated that she was so flexible," he said Monday. "You tell somebody that before you get married – ‘There’s a lot involved with this’ – but actually doing it, she was all in 100%. It made life easier. It made the job easier. It made it so that when I was a commanding officer, I could focus on the task at hand, which was the Marines and the mission."

But he didn’t just give her the opportunity to do the doctoral work. He got involved.

Dr. Kelly Maguire never would have dreamed of getting a doctorate when she was struggling as an undergraduate student. But then she met Joe.

“When I entered the doctoral program, we heard so many times, ‘You know, your family members may glaze over when you talk to them,’” she said. “He never did. That man was so engaged in everything that I was doing. He learned all the acronyms, all of the buzzwords. He knew all of it and would ask me questions and literally saw me through ’til the very end. I feel like this accomplishment is equally his because he was so incredibly supportive.”

It wasn’t quite that simple. Soon after Kelly started the program, her sister Kristine became terminally ill with cancer. The doctoral dream had to be paused. When Kelly returned to her studies after Kristine passed away, the Teaching and Learning with an Emphasis in Adult Learning degree had been established, and she quickly switched over from Organizational Leadership.

The next piece in her support group was the Doctoral Studies faculty, in particular the Program Chair, Dr. Wayne Schmidt. She can’t stop talking about how grateful she is for how he inspired her and the other learners, so don’t take the next sentence the wrong way …

“He terrified us,” she said. “He expected the highest caliber of scholarly writing, and he really prepared us. But while he terrified us, we loved him because he pushed us to get to that level of writing that was needed in preparation for doing the dissertation.

“Every DQ (discussion question) that we wrote, he scrutinized. He gave feedback on it and we would be like, ‘Oh gosh, what’s he going to say? How is he going to respond? What’s he going to do?’ But at the same time we looked forward to it because we knew that whatever feedback he gave us in that public forum, on those DQs, we could all benefit from. He was the same way with all of our essays.

“I got him for two classes, which I counted as a blessing. Even when we had other professors, we didn’t let up because we didn’t want to disappoint Dr. Schmidt.”

The big moment: Maguire is hooded by her favorite mentor, Dr. Wayne Schmidt, and becomes the first graduate of the College of Doctoral Studies' Teaching and Learning program.

Schmidt had another reason for being able to identify with Maguire. He, too, went through some earlier academic travails.

“Meeting Kelly for the first time, I sensed a connection. That it turned out to be a glowing one-point-something collegiate GPA is just another sign that God does, indeed, have a sense of humor,” he said. “Being just a small part of someone’s life who is going to do what Kelly will do is a great honor and very humbling. I am looking forward to seeing what she will accomplish!”

The final piece in the support puzzle was Maguire’s cohort and, more importantly, the alliance that grew from a series of group text messages. When she started to see the same names pop up in every class, Doctoral Divas Plus One was born. It was four women, one man and a lot more texts.

“There were some days when I felt like I woke up in the morning with them and I went to bed at night with them,” she said.

They finally met at a residency in 2019, and Kelly became the first one to the dissertation finish line on Oct. 29, 2020. The fact that her Commencement is almost exactly one year to the day is another testimonial to why GCU is staging these makeup ceremonies for graduates who couldn’t receive their diploma in person during the pandemic.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” she said, fighting her emotions. “I am SO looking forward to this. It’s already an accomplishment to get an Ed.D., but then to be the first one at the University in Teaching and Learning, it’s exciting and humbling at the same time.”

She was so excited about it, she bought her regalia last year even though the ceremonies had to be postponed. It has been sitting in her closet for a year. She even contacted Schmidt to find out which side of the stage he will be on – she wanted to make sure he would be the one who hoods her.

There were plenty of hugs to go around afterward.

Deciding on which makeup ceremony to attend was complicated by Joe’s current work: He’s a pilot who's gone two months at a time. She had to time it to when he would be home – no way was she going to have this moment without having him there.

Her reason for earning her doctorate is simple: She wants to be an example to other women, including her three daughters – her youngest, Heather, is a communications major at GCU.

Kelly would listen to Joe tell stories about what he has seen in other countries, where women often do not have the same educational opportunities.

“It is a privilege to be a woman in America because these opportunities are available to us,” she said. “When I would attend residencies and go to DC Network, seeing the number of women pursuing doctorates was very exciting to me.”

She doesn’t intend to use it to advance beyond her current role. She is perfectly happy being an adjunct. But it has led to one new opportunity: She recently was named Managing Editor for GCU’s Journal of Scholarly Engagement.

“She’s everything we want a doctoral learner to be,” Schmidt said.

Joe wanted to add one more thing: "I’m thrilled that I can support her as she pursues the things she would like to do in academia. I’m just really proud of her. I’m there for her 100%. This is her turn."

Put all the puzzle pieces together, and no wonder Monday was such a special day. Her Phoenix upbringing … her husband of 31 years at her side … her professors’ aid … her cohort’s fellowship … the timing of it all …

And Kelly Maguire did indeed get her wish: Schmidt was the one who hooded her. Then she gave him a big hug.

“It’s perfect,” she said. “It’s absolutely perfect.”

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: It's a deluge of doctorates for GCU faculty members

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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