Then there were 14.
On Saturday, under nearly a cloudless sky, they became HPU’s first cohort to graduate with Doctor of Education degrees ending four years of work that had them step back into class and write a dissertation inches thick.
But they did it. They became the trailblazers, the first doctoral cohort at HPU. It’s a first in the school’s 92-year history and an academic statement that says to HPU Provost Dr. Dennis Carroll about the university, “We’ve arrived!”
Fifteen years ago, HPU officials wanted to broaden the impact of its School of Education after seeing so many of its grads turn into award-winning teachers and principals. The portraits line the school’s second-floor hallway.
So, in 2012, HPU created a doctoral program that school officials saw as practical and more attune to creating educational leaders beyond the school building.
The school hired top-notch faculty and created a curriculum that had doctoral candidates focusing on solving real problems in their own district.
At HPU, that happened.
Their research was put into practice, and these 14 saw themselves as advocates for change by crafting ways to keep teachers, help principals and inspire students to learn.
After walking across the stage, getting their doctoral hood and shaking the hands of President Dr. Nido Qubein and commencement speaker Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the 14 sat in the first two rows in the shadow of Roberts Hall.
They can officially attach “Ed.D” to the end of their name. But it’s not so much the title they embraced. It’s the experience, their journey at HPU, they enjoyed.
They made it. Two came from Alabama; the other dozen from North Carolina. But it wasn’t easy for these 14. Three can vouch for that.
Emily Lipe tried twice to get a doctoral degree in education. She never really got started. Raising a young daughter shelved the first attempt; becoming a high school principal shelved the second.
But this time, she wanted to make it work at HPU. High Point, North Carolina, was her hometown, and her family encouraged her, particularly her two children, now much older.
“Mom, stick it out,” they told her. “You’ve got this!”
So, like the other 14, she came to school once a month on the weekends and five days a week for three weeks during the summer. Meanwhile, she spent hundreds of hours researching, writing and rewriting her dissertation.
For months every Sunday afternoon, at a Panera Bread restaurant 30 minutes from campus, Lipe sat across the table from another doctoral student, Cate Gentry, a fellow educator from North Carolina.
Together, they worked on their dissertation. Together, they stayed focused.
Lipe wanted to finish her dissertation for herself and for Carolyn Welborn, her neighbor two doors down. She goes by “Nonnie.” She is Lipe’s mom.
They talk often in Lipe’s kitchen, and when Lipe got accepted to HPU’s new doctoral program, they talked about her educational endeavor.
“I hope the Good Lord will let me see you graduate,” Welborn told her daughter.
“He will,” she responded.
In April, right after defending her dissertation, Cate Gentry left HPU, pulled into Sonic, bought a hot dog and made a phone call.
“This is Dr. Cate Gentry trying to find Mr. Bill Evans,” she said.
No answer. She waited. Nothing.
“Hello?” she asked. “Dad?”
“I’m crying,” Evans responded.
Her father, a longtime high school principal with 41 years in public education, was an ABD – All But a Dissertation. But his oldest child wasn’t. She made it.
Like Lipe, Gentry tried to go after a doctorate two previous times, and like Lipe, she had to sideline both attempts for motherhood and a new job as a high school principal.
Gentry wanted the third time to be the charm. She had liked what she saw at HPU, and her husband, Randy, told her, “If you start this, we’re going to finish it. We can handle anything for four years.”
What ensued were busy weekends, busy summers and Sunday afternoons across from Lipe at Panera Bread. When she called her dad, she felt like she could breathe.
“I felt like I had a glow around me,” she says. “I owned it. Not only did I realize I knew my stuff, but I knew I could work in the realm of knowledge I need to be in to be a strong school leader.”
Four years ago, after picking up her oldest son from practice with the White Plains Raiders, a youth football team, Shelley Bryant got a surprise.
“I’m not calling you Dr. Mom,” Kaleb said.
Bryant burst out laughing.
“You can still call me Mom,” Bryant told her 10-year-old son. “Nothing has changed.”
No, it hasn’t. She is still a mother of two, a North Carolina native, a product of rural public education and the youngest daughter of a tobacco farmer who went no further than the 10th grade.
But she now has a doctorate and a dissertation she wrote at every free moment. That included sitting in the stands watching her two boys play baseball, writing on her laptop and hearing her friends around her ask, “You still working?”
Her answer was always yes.
Her four years at HPU helped her decide what she wants to do next: work at the district level and help support teachers, particularly teachers in their first few years in the classroom.
“You go into leadership because you want to make a difference and be there to support people and grow yourself, and when you’re looking at your own district, that does mean something,” Bryant says. “It’s boots on the ground, and you can be the change in your district.”
She discovered how at HPU.
“You’re not gathering data for the sake of gathering data. You’re sitting at a table and saying, ‘Now, what?’”
The dissertations created real change for the 14 and real change for where they worked.
Bryant, an assistant middle school principal, created a professional development plan to help train, support and keep beginning teachers where she grew up in Surry County, a rural area an hour west of HPU.
Gentry, the chief academic officer for Thomasville City Schools, created a structure to better prepare teachers in becoming instructional program specialists in Davidson County, a large rural area minutes from HPU.
And Lipe, the new assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Davidson County, created an academy to better prepare assistant principals so they feel supported and not so isolated.
Lots of work. But Saturday was all about celebration – and surprise.
During the commencement, Bryant looked down at her phone and saw she had a text from her son, Kaleb. He wrote, “I love you.” Bryant wrote back, “I love you, too.”
Gentry’s dad stood beneath a huge oak and teared up twice – the first during Rice’s commencement speech when she talked about her family and the second when his daughter walked across the stage.
And he hollered.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to do that,” he said.
Lipe’s mom sat with family on the other side of the Roberts Hall lawn. She made it.
She still remembers when her youngest daughter was 5, lining up her dolls in the back seat of the car and telling her and her husband, “Mom and Dad, don’t talk. I’m teaching school.”
Now, at 49, her daughter has her doctorate. Welborn saw it happen.
“This gave me something to live for,” she said from her seat Saturday. “I’ll be 90 in January, and Emily doesn’t think I’m old – I am. But you know, I never thought this would happen in my family. I am so proud of her.”