Then COVID hit, and Toronka had to pick up shifts during the week. She thought about stepping away from her studies. "But something in me just said, ‘Keep going. You’re on your last year. Keep going,’" she recalls.
She pressed on, juggling three children, two jobs, a marriage and a master’s program. "You want it bad enough, you figure it out along the way," she says with a small laugh.
Toronka successfully completed her program in February 2021.
Like Toronka, Alonso found considerable value in the master’s program at UOPX. So much so that, three months after she earned her Master of Arts in Education/Adult Education and Training, she went back for her Doctor of Education (EDD) in Educational Leadership/Educational Technology.
"We have a huge number of teachers who get their degrees at UOPX and get their EDD to become superintendents," Woods observes.
But for Alonso, the carrot at the end of this 38-month, programmatic stick wasn’t an administrative role so much as it was the joy of learning. Yes, she wanted to enhance her career, but she also found that she thrived in the online graduate and postgraduate environment.
"Everything was, for me, from day one, perfect," the Cuban-born Alonso enthuses. "I always implemented what I was learning. My job is my playground."
By way of example, Alonso rattles off a number of skills she learned during her graduate studies and routinely applies to her work today. As an instructor of several subjects at multiple schools, she develops curriculum, she understands how structural design gets applied to courses, she assesses different programs, she teaches, she mentors. During the pandemic, she helped set up online classrooms and train teachers. In what is possibly the greatest compliment of all, her boss, she says, wants "to borrow her brain."
All of this was possible because of the practical knowledge Alonso gained in her graduate and postgraduate degrees. As Woods notes, this commitment to skills-based training extends from bachelor’s programs all the way through to doctoral programs. Even dissertations, Woods says, address "problem-solving topics." Students contemplate existing problems in their fields (like African American female leadership in school districts, for example) and use their dissertations as opportunities to apply their knowledge toward a solution.
Alonso’s enthusiasm for learning should not be misinterpreted as glib. Earning her doctorate was worth it, but it wasn’t easy. She had small children, she was working full-time and she was caring for her mother who was ill. Between work, family responsibilities and cooking for and visiting her mother daily, Alonso wouldn’t get to her schoolwork until the evening and routinely found herself completing assignments by 1 or 2 a.m. She successfully concluded her doctorate in March 2021.
Alonso recognizes how online learning fit her unique abilities and preferences. (As an educator, after all, she is well-versed in adult learning theories.) The instructor feedback and class discussions she experienced at UOPX, she says, amplified what she took away from the lessons.
This corroborates Woods’ observations about the level of support UOPX offers its doctoral students. Recently, the University implemented a new protocol whereby doctoral candidates are assigned a research methodologist and dissertation chair. The university also hired about 50 year-round faculty who are committed to teaching courses and chairing. These dedicated resources, he says, exist to ensure the success of doctoral candidates.
Alonso takes a similar approach with her own students. She is there to impart knowledge and to support her students, she acknowledges, but they have to bring the will to see it through.
Alonso says: "I tell my students, ‘If I can do it, why can’t you do it? The only difference is commitment.’"
And where that commitment comes from matters. For Alonso, it’s her passion for learning. For Toronka, it was making a dream come true. After all, to stay the often-bumpy course of graduate and postgraduate study, Alonso notes that "you have to go where your passion is. [You have to] stay committed to that and keep your motivation." The reward is well worth it.
You don’t have to go it alone. Learn how one UOPX instructor champions the efforts of her doctoral students.
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