From the Projects to the PhD

As a child my father would have me research famous African Americans. . . who was the first to go to college, get a degree, travel the world, invent the lawn mower, the list goes on.. then I would always wish I’d be the first to do something. Today, I am. The first in my family to earn a doctorate degree.

After years and years and years (24 to be exact) of being in school… I completed my dissertation requirements today by successfully defending my dissertation. I’ve learned that a lot of people, even those close to me have no idea what my doctorate degree is in–nor do they care–they’re just proud. As am I—proud. As a first generation college student I also don’t think my parents or grand-parents understand the doctoral process..or the undergraduate one for that matter, but that’s okay. If you’re like them, there’s no shame in it. . . email me to talk details of my program if you want specifics or read more about PhD requirements & dissertations here. Nonetheless, I completed mine today. And I still don’t have the words to describe how or what I feel. . . .

What I do know is that I enjoy school. That was confirmed today as I discussed over and over again, my journey and my love for learning…..I feel it’s a privilege. When I consider the individuals, known and unknown, who laid down their lives so that I could pick up a book w/o the certainty of painful consequences…the women, the men, the children, the leaders, the dreamers, the people. . . who’s wildest dream, was me. I am inspired by that. I know that people say school is not for everybody, and I agree. But I think learning is. I was taught, If you stop learning when you leave school, you’re a dummy. And if you only learn while you’re in school, you’re an idiot. . . . .

The path that I took, PreK→ Elementary→ Middle→ High school→ Undergrad→ Grad→ Doctoral, worked for me & I thank God for sustainability. Some nights I cried out of frustration and exhaustion–between learning, working, parenting, fighting, grinding and grinding some more–there were so many opportunities for me to understandably give up… But I kept going. People will tell you to take a break. People will tell you it’s not worth the money. People will tell you it’s a waste of time, a hassle, too much work. . . I say do what’s best for you. Do what you desire to do! Be who you aspire to be!

Typically, It takes the average student 8-10 years to complete a PhD program… and the average graduate is 33 years-old at the time of doctoral degree completion. Each time I read or hear that statement, I think about how far from average God made me. . . nothing about me, my educational trajectory, or my life for that matter, has been average. I was never supposed to be here. . . . . a teen mom, raised by a teen mom, project raised. . . I was never supposed make it this far….statistically speaking. Not the young girl from the ghetto, from the single-parent home…from the projects.. I don’t run from where I come from, it’s a testament to the power of God. But I do reflect on where I come from in times like this . .on days like these. . . when everything that I’ve been through feels worth it… the long nights, the missed holidays home, the sacrifices, the pain, the tears, the loneliness, the grinding, the dedication, the fatigue, the uncertainty, the lack of support, the lack of resources and how no matter, whatever, I stayed the course and all that comes with it. It’s worth it. Today proved that true.

After more than 24 years of formal education, I’m PhinisheD. I’ve waited a while to say that. This journey, from the Projects to Pre-Kindergarten to PhD has taught me so much more about myself, than it has about anything else. . . more-so than course material, research, academia, people, higher education etc. Growing up my mother and father told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. When I was younger, I believed them. As I got older, I started questioning that–How? When? Are you sure? Positive? Me? I can be whatever I want to be? Even though I’m poor? Even though I’m first gen? Even though I’m a teen Mom? Even though I’ve failed again and again and again? I wasn’t so sure . . .

A phone conversation with my mother the other day reminded me that I’ve been in school consecutively–hardly taking summers off–from Pre-K →Ph.D. I grew up in the South Omaha Projects where my days were spent playing inside because of the gang violence outside. We then moved to the North Omaha Projects, where I walked to my Pre-School and sometimes the school bus. Our house was robbed. Gun-shots were typical. And college seemed far in the distance. Getting pregnant during my senior year of high school didn’t make things easier….. with the odds seemingly stacked against me, today is day that holds so much meaning, so much pride, so much joy, and so much relief.  As a first generation college student, it was not my original intent to get a doctorate degree. At all. I didn’t even initially know what one was. . . .but I did make a promise to my son, and then 19 year-old self in the hospital on November 14, 2008 as I held him in my arms, it was late, we were alone, I promised to be the best I can be, for him and to give him the things and the life that he deserved, no matter what!

Today  I am reminded of that promise, and proud I’ve stayed true. I’m also reminded that it is indeed true. There is nothing that I cannot do…there is nothing that I cannot be. I hope this journey inspires other first-generation college students, other women with children, other students who are tired, fed-up, alone, heart-broken, struggling, determined, working hard, diligent and aspiring to be and do their best.

I graduated high school and they said I wouldn’t go to college. I did. I graduated undergrad and they said I was still a statistic. I was. I went on to finish a Master’s Program in 18 months and they got quiet. . . . I got into a doctorate program and they started apologizing and “warning” me that it was tough stuff. . . that it’ll take me a while, being a mother and all. I said I’d finish in 3 and they laughed.. telling me that if I worked full-time it was nearly impossible. . . they called me VERY ambitious. . .and they were right– I am. Today, it’s DONE. In 3. Like I declared. And like God said. Further– I worked a full-time and a part-time job, was an involved and attentive single mother, Graduate Student Council President for the bulk of my study, Student-Parent Group President, Mentor . . . . the list goes on. I’m proud today, but this post isn’t for self-aggrandizement, it’s for reference. For the people who say you can’t and the better ones, who don’t believe them. Because of their doubt, and the doubt of people like them, I am grateful and have found three things to be absolutely true:

1. They don’t know the fight in me. . .or in YOU!

2. God cannot fail.

3. When God is a part of the plan and the dream, there’s no such thing as TOO big or TOO hard.  

I did it. And you can too! But like the African proverb goes, “It takes a village. . . ” click here to read my sweet dissertation thank you, to mine.



10 thoughts on “From the Projects to the PhD

  1. kim says:

    dr. spencer! i’m proud of you my niece…you inspire me to continue…you stayed the course and paved the path to your success! congratulations!


  2. Mynesha says:

    There are no words to share. Instead, my eyes cry. It’s like the first time you won that Varsity game as a freshman. Similarly, I won me a trophy! 🏆 Love you a thousand times over.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Foluke says:

    Never met a woman so strong, so kind hearted and compassionate, so hardworking and so so beautiful. I am proud of you and look forward to hearing the great things you do with this degree. Congratulations Mar. 👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Empoweringruth says:

    Just beautiful and most inspiring! I got my bachelor’s degree in 2018 and I was so proud of my accomplishment as a single parent with a fulltime job. I could definitely relate to the grinding, there were many nights I wanted to give up and go to sleep rather that do homework. After reading your post, I’m inspired to reach for and do more! Congratulations empowered woman!

    Liked by 1 person

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