How does a product of the NYC projects balance the pursuit of a PhD, publishing, and parenthood? Meet Dr. Carolina E. Gonzalez (@PhDCarolina); a Dominican-born doctor who overcame bullying and self-doubt to get PhinisheD/FinishEdD. She serves in the Center of Pedagogy at Montclair State University as the Director for the Teacher Education Advocacy Center leading the work on recruitment and academic support for students interested in teacher education, especially those from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Prior to her role at Montclair State, Carolina worked in the New York City Department of Education leading the implementation of the Common Core-aligned curriculum and its digital platforms for nearly 1,000 NYC public schools and 1 million students across NYC. Her research interests include intersectionality of identities; experiences of immigrant children; parental involvement; and access, equity and the academic success of underrepresented students in higher education. She also has researched the persistence of successful Latino male college scholars, challenging generalized assumptions about the experiences of Latino males in higher education and calls for researchers and practitioners to shift away from a deficit-based paradigm when working with underrepresented populations.
This Harlemite, and recent recipient of SUNY New Paltz’s inaugural 40 Under Forty award for leadership in her profession has facilitated countless trainings and sessions on diversity, equity, student success and development.
Her most recent presentation titled, “Doctorates in Diapers: Women’s Journey Navigating the Doctoral Degree w/ Children” is one of many reasons she is our most recent spotlight.
Dr. Gonzalez, can you start by discussing the beginning stages of your doctoral journey?
When I started my doctoral studies at the age of 27, I was in a relationship, was still living with my mother, and had a great fulfilling job. Undoubtedly, life was fun—weekend brunches, daily lunches and parties. I had no idea how “good” I had it back then. But things took a turn when I started pursuing my doctoral studies. Instead of fun activities, my weekends were occupied with long, indulgent writing sessions. I knew life was going to be very different for the next few years.
What was your primary motivator to pursue a terminal degree?
As a first generation college student, a woman of color, and an immigrant, I regarded education as the equalizer to a better life for my family and me. In other words, a PhD was a goal of mine since I was able to conceptualize the importance of education and my academic potential. Despite believing in my abilities, I doubted myself throughout the process. Writing in a scholarly fashion scared me and I allowed the fear to take over me, resulting in writer’s block and procrastination. I recognized that the fear stemmed from being an immigrant with English being my second language. Despite speaking and writing the language for over 20 years, the trauma of being made fun of as a young girl for not knowing how to pronounce some words and taunted for being placed in English as Second Language (ESL) classes still lingered. This stressor, compounded with other life events, made the journey difficult.
How did you adjust once you actually started in your doctoral program?
Once I started my doctoral studies, I felt as though life started to evolve and major life events began happening. I became a wife, a parent, a home owner and changed jobs two times. But the life event that had its most indelible impact was that of becoming a mother. My pregnancy wasn’t an easy one and due to some complications, I had to be on bed rest for the majority of the 9 months. My outlook on life and priorities began to shift. I realized how becoming a parent made me a stronger person and student. This new role pushed me out of my comfort zone(s) and prompted me to find solutions to issues I never foresaw needing. In fact, it made me a stronger qualitative researcher, as it made me more attuned to the experiences of the young men I was interviewing. But balancing it all was a challenge in itself and the pressure I was putting on myself to be the perfect mom, partner and daughter was detrimental.
How did you manage to persist?
I soon arrived at a crossroad: I stopped striving for perfection.
Was that an easy transition?
I realized that perfection in all aspects of life was not possible, as it is a moving target. Instead, I focused on the process. For example, I took the burden off myself by taking the focus away from yearning to get the dissertation done and instead focused on working on the manuscript daily in advancing towards my goal. I took that approach with other aspects of my personal and professional life as well. I stopped focusing on how I was missing social events and focused on appreciating the little special moments I connected with those who I loved. I concluded that there are two kinds of doctoral students: those who live their life while pursuing their degree and those who place life on hold until they finish their degree. Neither approach is better than the other, except it was essential for me to know which path was most sensible for me at that time. I chose to live my life as I pursued the PhD and I had to simply accept what came with that choice.
What external factors helped you work towards completion?
Achieving this goal wasn’t only a product of my determination, but a collaboration of a team who not only rooted and cheered for me, but also helped me out with things that mattered, like childcare. With my husband working on weekends, I relied on my mother and brothers to help me in watching my son on weekends while I took a bus to the nearest Panera bread and spent 6 hours writing each Saturday and Sunday. I followed this routine for months and saw the seasons come and go. On beautiful spring days, all I wanted to do is be with my son in the park enjoying the weather. I would call my husband guilt-ridden and crying wishing I was caring for and playing with our baby boy instead of writing. He reminded me how this was a phase and that if I put it off, I would remain with this unmet goal lingering over my head for longer. His encouragement grounded and motivated me to keep going. Having a supportive and solid team kept me humbled and becoming a mother became an even bigger reason for finishing the degree.
Any final thoughts for parents working to get PhinisheD/FinishEdD?
For those in the process pursuing their doctoral degree while parenting, know that this journey is yours and you have the freedom to shape it whichever way makes sense for your life. However, do not let your day-to-day distract you from your end goal. This journey deserves its culmination…get there by asking for help along the way and keep plowing through the toughest time.