A group of frogs decided to have a racing competition up the highest tower in town. The competition gained many observers on the day of the race. When the race began, many of the observers continually shouted “You can’t do it!” and “You can never make it to the top!” And one by one, the little frogs began to fall back and give up. Except one. By the end, there was only one little frog left, and he managed to reach the top. How did the little frog make it when all the others failed? Turns out, the successful frog was deaf.

A doctoral program is a marathon, not a sprint. That’s what they (they being every student and professor connected to the program) keep telling me. You will cry. You will have meltdowns. Your face will smack squarely into the proverbial wall, and you will want to quit. It is about rigor. It is meant to be hard. It ends relationships, causes divorce, and breaks you down into nothingness. It is one of the hardest things you will do in your life.

I just started. Yay.

I was accepted into a distributed PhD program for Learning Technologies—distributed meaning that it is almost entirely online with a week-long summer conference every year. As I write this, I have come to the end of my third week in the program, right at the end of my first summer conference.

I am already exhausted.

But to have you understand where I am now, you obviously need to know where I’ve come from, at least professionally and as a student. From Kindergarten through 8th grade, I went to private school, where I struggled. I didn’t like reading (with the exception of later elementary, when I read some Goosebumps and The Hobbit). I barely understood math. I almost failed science. I was oblivious to most things around me, at least academically. And socially. (But that’s another story.)

I began writing fiction in about 2nd grade, inspired to do more by my 1st grade teacher who would encourage me to greatness. As with most kids, I always thought about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I bounced around a bit: writer, animator, teacher. Eventually, “teacher” stuck. I knew I wanted to be a teacher for many years, to inspire like my 1st grade teacher inspired me.

What, you ask? You didn’t care for school, weren’t the best student, and you wanted to be a teacher? Yeah, I know. And I wouldn’t say I was necessarily a bad student. I did well in English. I loved creating stories. I loved writing. So I would, specifically, want to be an English teacher.

Around middle school, I had begun playing JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games), such as the more kid-friendly Pokemon and the more intense Final Fantasy. Home internet was starting to boom at this point, as well, so I was online a lot for video game forums, chat rooms, web design, and fan-fiction. I suppose you could say this began my push toward being a reader and tech user.

I then moved to public high school, where I excelled… primarily thanks to my private school education. I was no valedictorian or anything, but I was solidly on the AB Honor Roll with a lean closer to the A. I also became a more avid reader, thanks to the glorious wizarding world of Harry Potter. I had also finished the first draft of my first full novel by the end of my senior year. I was also dual-enrolled in college my senior year. The program involved me being a future teacher (ironically, I might have been the only person, or only one of the few, in the class to actually become a teacher). The program had us volunteer at a nearby elementary school. It also had us replacing our English IV credit with college-level English 1301 (essays) and 1302 (lit/research) courses.

It was during this time I realized I was never adequately taught how to write essays or do research. This was terrifying, of course, because my high school graduation now relied solely on being able to do both, and to do both at a college level. Thankfully I succeeded, and in doing so, I learned valuable writing skills.

After graduation, I went to our local community college (the same I was dual-enrolled at). But don’t let “community college” throw you off. Victoria College is considered one of the most difficult community colleges in the US (or at least was at the time I went—I can’t speak to it now). I built toward a degree in English with an education certification in order to teach high school. My writing later strengthened when I began working as a writing tutor at the tutoring center at the University of Houston—Victoria (UHV). I also wrote multiple novels during this time (unpublished at the time), which continually helped my writing abilities thanks to the constant help, discussions, major reflections, and revisions from/with a boss/friend at said center.

In 2008—or, really, very late 2007—I also began writing a movie review blog (which later evolved into a multi-person website). During this time, I also practiced video and audio editing thanks to podcasting and producing a meta comedy web-series. This entire part of my life lasted for roughly 7 years, until the end of 2014. But I’m getting ahead.

I graduated with my Bachelor’s in English in 2008 and began working as an English teacher in the fall of 2009. I taught Freshmen English my first year, and it was a disaster. On the one hand, I suddenly became one of the most popular teachers in the school… which says something, considering the school was split into two separate campuses, and people on the other campus—which I wasn’t even at—knew who I was. On the other hand, this was in part due to my humorous and laid back nature and in part due to my complete lack of classroom management abilities. They loved me, but it was at the cost of chaos and disrespect. This did not slip blindly by administration, either. I became Target #1, and I was placed on a growth plan, meaning I had to meet very specific goals the next year or else be let go. My first year wasn’t a complete disaster, however. During this year, I was able to have students collaborate, write, and film two modernized short film adaptations of literature we had read: The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet. It was a headache, sure, but I had students volunteering to actually stay after school for the project, and I had students who would never pick up a pencil in class before actually ask to participate. Technology for the win!

My second year, I taught both Freshmen and Sophomore English yet could not undertake another tech project like I had done the previous year. While my classroom management increased, and I met all of the requirements of the growth plan, I was strangely placed on a second growth plan for the next year. These administrative issues did not disappear my third year, either, when I taught only Sophomore English. My classroom management abilities increased even more, to the point I was told I would be taken off the growth plan for my fourth year and was solid. However, due to major administrative issues within the school, I was incredibly unhappy in my situation (and was not alone). Soon after being released from the growth plan, I turned in a letter of resignation for the end of the year—and I was one of 60+ teachers to either quit or be fired that year within that school alone and one of hundreds over the next few years. It was not what I had envisioned growing up.

I didn’t quit without a plan, of course. Prior to my resignation, I had decided I wanted to teach abroad—specifically South Korea. I won’t go into the details, as there should be an entire book that will hopefully be released in the not-too-distant future all about it (plug, plug). I left for Korea at the tail-end of February 2013 and endured many wacky misadventures.

I returned from Korea in March of 2014 with the idea of going to graduate school in order to obtain my Master’s in Library Science to be a school librarian. The idea actually came to me from a previous co-worker at the high school, who every day complained she should just quit teaching and go back to school to become a librarian. As soon as I remembered that story, things clicked, and I knew that was actually the direction I wanted to go. I was accepted at the University of North Texas in the fall, though that was not the most significant event of that time. In October of that same year, I met Elisha.

Almost immediately after returning from Korea, I was sent a private message on Facebook from a recruiting company. They had seen on my profile I had an English degree and wondered if I knew anybody who had tutoring skills because there was a Korean family new to town who needed English tutoring. No joke, this company had no idea any of my background outside the fact I had an English degree. I snatched up the job myself, of course. They were a great family—I loved working with them and am actually still in contact with them, though the company that recruited me was rather iffy.

Also working with this family was Marissa, someone I had known a little from also working as a writing tutor at UHV. She had started telling me about her friend Elisha and how much we had in common. Unbeknownst to me, she was doing the same to Elisha. We befriended each other on Facebook at the very least, both of us feeling too awkward to want to ask to hang out. Then, one day, Elisha asked if anyone wanted to go see dance choreographer Travis Wall and his troupe, who would be in Houston soon. Also being a Travis Wall fan, I volunteered to go with her… and the rest, as they say, is history. We started dating soon thereafter.

When I discovered the family was moving back to Korea, I knew I needed another job. I had enough course credits to have permission from the school to work as a librarian while still taking courses, and I ended up as the school librarian at a local elementary school (which, as of this writing, is still my job). Elisha, her (at the time) 5-year-old daughter, and myself moved into a duplex together around this time and, a year later, bought a house.

I graduated with my Master’s degree in May 2016.  I proposed to Elisha Labor Day weekend a few months later. (Spoiler alert: She said yes.) We quickly decided to have our wedding in Alaska, where my sister lives, for a handful of reasons. The wedding will be July 17 (Yes, in a few weeks!) with a bigger reception for family and friends back home not long thereafter.

However, when I graduated back in May, Elisha teased that I should get my PhD. I went along with the notion, though all but gave up when I couldn’t find any degree I liked that was also easily accessible for someone not going to the school in person. As it turns out, there are very few distributed PhD programs available, since most universities consider it a more residential type of program.

And then Elisha found a distributed PhD program in Learning Technologies—a logical evolution from where I already was and everything I had done in life up to that point—at the University of North Texas… the very university I had just graduated from! A year later, in May 2017, I was accepted into the program just in time to begin the first summer session and the mandatory summer face-to-face conference, this year in San Antonio.

Having just returned home from said conference today, I can say it was incredibly informative, exhausting, fear-inducing, fun, life-affirming, and well needed. Monday through Thursday were a minimum of 12-hour days, from 8 AM to 8 PM (9 PM on Wednesday), and an early pre-lunch exit on Friday. And here are some of my discoveries in no particular order:

  • Elisha is so incredibly supportive of this venture, and I’m unbelievably lucky to have her with me through this.
  • I will apparently have tears and meltdowns along the way from stress.
  • Unless you’re in a PhD program, you can’t completely understand what it’s like—the level of pressure, mental drainage, exhaustion, etc. is rather intense, and it is considered one of the most difficult things you will ever do (and to that I say… try climbing Mt. Fuji in the dark, alone, unprepared, overweight, and unaccustomed to higher elevations).
  • I can do it because I have the greatest group of motivators surrounding me.

Outside of Elisha, we are set up to succeed in every way in this program. We have a mentor professor; a cadre (a group of students in the program who share said mentor professor); a Major Professor (the main professor I will work with to guide me through the program and dissertation); and the best cohort this program has ever seen!

The program uses a cohort system, which means every student in the program who will start and graduate at the same time works together as a type of family/buddy system. Most of Cohort 2021 (the year we are to graduate) bonded very quickly, with there currently being only 14 of us, and I can already tell some if not most of these people will be with me even after graduation. In short, there is no way I can fail. My soon-to-be wife won’t let me. My cohort won’t let me. My school won’t let me (if they can help it). And I’m sure my own stubbornness won’t let me.

As of this posting, I have written 9 books, published 3, and am working on a non-fiction adaptation of my crazy year abroad (worthy of memoir-ization, I think). But I know my next book-length material of importance will be my dissertation. I’m not overly worried about the writing that comes with this venture but rather the overload of everything else.

That being said, while at this conference, we were given Ten Tips on survival and a goodie bag of tools and reminders for the following 4.5 years:

  • A marble to remind us we won’t lose all of them.
  • A rubber band to remind us we are flexible.
  • A penny to remind us we will never be penniless.
  • An Alumni ribbon to remind us where we’re headed.
  • An eraser to remind us we can fix our mistakes.
  • A toy to remind us to have fun.
  • A frog sticker to remind us to not listen to negativity.
  • And a tissue for our inevitable tears, but just one, and we are to let it dry out every time to reuse it throughout the program.

We were told that, over all the years she’s done this, nobody has yet to return the tissue after graduation, but she always anticipates it. And to that I say…

Challenge Accepted.

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