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Madam Dr. President: COE awards first doctorate in new program

The first graduate of a new doctoral program doesn’t get any special treatment. There are no balloons. No lifelong discount at Starbucks. No duets with Tony Bennett. They don’t get to wear sequined, James Brown-inspired regalia at Commencement. No, planting a flag in new academic territory at a particular institution usually has to be enough. In Carla McNelly’s case, however, she got a bonus from her family in the form of a cheeky new title: "Madam Dr. President." After being elected president of SEIU Local 085 in April, then completing her PhD in May, it only seemed fitting.

Carla is the first graduate from the inaugural cohort of Critical and Sociocultural Studies in Education (CSSE), a doctoral program within the Education Studies department at the UO College of Education. Originally from Indiana, she came to UO in 1996 for work, and still is an administrative assistant currently at the School of Journalism and Communication. She holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science, a post-baccalaureate in romance languages (Spanish and Italian), a master’s in international studies, and now the PhD. There are less expensive ways to decorate one’s office, but Carla seems satisfied that the path she’s taken has led her to this fairly specialized degree. The employee education benefit offered her an opportunity she was more than happy to seize, especially when she realized how it aligned with her interests.

“I experienced public-school education that was rote memory, and when I came to the college environment at the University of Oregon, I realized I was smart and that I had something to contribute. Because of professors that have put me on paths like [the late Associate Professor of International Studies] Dr. [Robert] Proudfoot, I’ve been able to run with the curiosities that I’ve had, and that’s been my complete pleasure.”

Prior to his passing in 2006, Proudfoot suggested that Carla investigate the fledgling CSSE program. She was attracted to the cohort model, courses, and the blend of quantitative and qualitative study the program offered; she saw how that approach would not only make her a better researcher, but afford her the opportunity to be principal investigator on studies of her own. That vision came to pass, as the field research for her dissertation took her to Honduras. Now that she has the weight of a PhD from UO, she intends to return and confer with her associates there about how she can best help them advance projects related to public and bilingual/multicultural education, and access thereto. She notes that the people of Honduras and her work there are the main reasons she wanted a PhD in the first place.

Since 1992, she’s made more than 25 trips there. In 1994, the country made "education in their mother tongue” a constitutional right. Two decades later, it’s still being implemented. Of course, that relatively progressive action wasn’t necessarily accompanied by an increase educational resources, which are constantly threatened (sound familiar?). Over the long term, Carla hopes that her work with Honduran educators can legitimize their work and show how a more educated populace is economically and politically advantageous. Her background in computer science could come in handy as well, since teacher development is key to making sure communities are delivering relevant lessons, and they don’t exactly have the infrastructure for continuing education. Technology could remove some of those barriers. The same goes for Honduran universities, which could benefit from building satellite campuses in smaller communities.

Faculty form the backbone of any successful program, especially at the doctoral level since cohorts are small and the topics focused. On this level, Carla feels she was supported through the program without being steered in any particular direction - a vibe for which she credits her chair, Edward Olivos, and Department Head, Jill Baxter.

“I appreciated what content my professors had to share with me … I learned a lot from course content, but also watching them. I think those are valuable skills that I’ll take with me, too, because my dream of dreams is to become a tenured professor at 51.”

Working on a compressed timeline makes Carla especially appreciative that the CSSE program delivered on its stated objectives.

“This is what the program promised to prepare me for: To be a researcher - check - to be a professor - check - and to be in a position to affect policy - check … The program is an opportunity to take really cool ideas, build on them, then get the PhD and be able to go out and see them through. And because it comes from a critical/sociocultural approach, there are so many different backgrounds of experience and knowledge that could feed into this program and help someone be successful at it.”