Graduate ambassador spotlight: Tracy Walker

The Graduate School is featuring eight students and their unique paths through higher education. The essay below is written by Tracy Walker, a Ph.D. student in learning design and technology in the College of Education

The only one of her siblings to earn a college degree, my mother has always emphasized the importance of education. A former educator, she was my first teacher and has always been one of my biggest cheerleaders. We always celebrate my successes—including graduations, births, and promotions—together.

As a high school senior, I planned to pursue a career in law. Because I excelled in math and science, my father encouraged me to consider engineering. The summer after I graduated, I attended an eight-week summer engineering program during which I earned a four-year college scholarship from a Michigan-based manufacturing company. That was cause for celebration.

I prepared for a career in chemical engineering, but a summer internship at the end of my second year made me reconsider. I changed my major to English and communication, with the goal of working in community affairs or for a member of Congress.

After graduation, I accomplished many goals, and the celebrations continued. I landed a position in community relations with the Detroit Pistons, where I developed, implemented and evaluated initiatives aimed at helping schools improve student attendance, grades, and behavior. I got married and started a family. I earned a master’s in communication. I began teaching English and communication courses, eventually becoming a subject matter expert for an instructional design team. I managed my own business, providing public relations services to professional athletes and nonprofit sports-related organizations. I became communications director for a member of Congress, and redesigning her website sparked my interest in user experience.

I was researching user experience programs when I discovered Wayne State’s Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program. I applied and began taking courses. I was exploring doctoral studies in LIS when I took an instructional design class and decided to explore the learning design and technology (LDT) program in the College of Education.

My father died unexpectedly. My father-in-law died, and my husband left. Three months later, during my first semester in the education specialist certificate program in LDT, my mother—a retired educator and Wayne State alumna—was diagnosed with lung cancer. I became her caregiver. With two children already in college and another about to start and more expenses and responsibilities to handle, I took a break. I started to question whether I should continue. Could I manage work, school, and other obligations in the midst of the chaos in my personal life? Would it be wise to pursue a doctorate when my family needed me? Should I start a Ph.D. at 50?

During my self-imposed hiatus, we learned my mother’s cancer had spread to her brain. She told me to “enjoy every moment” right before saying she wanted to see me graduate with my Ph.D. Two faculty members encouraged me to consider doctoral studies in LDT after reviewing my final project for my first class. Then, my daughter told me it was time for me to stop making sacrifices and proceed with my studies.

The last two years reinforced four things. First, we are strong enough to handle any challenges that come our way. We have to push through to experience a breakthrough. Second, there are people—including faculty, family, and friends—who want us to succeed. We must surround ourselves with individuals who will encourage and motivate us as we work toward our goals. Next, self-care is not selfish. We cannot take care of others without first taking care of ourselves. Finally, we must enjoy every moment, spending time with people and on projects that give us joy.

As a doctoral student, I am confident I have finally found my place. LDT allows me to use the knowledge and skills I amassed from my experiences to address learning and performance issues. It also seems like a natural next step. My goal is to teach and conduct research focused on women who are online entrepreneurs as instructional designers in virtual, informal learning spaces. This accomplishment is important not only because I want to create new knowledge and lift up the voices of women and people of color in the profession but also because my mother is still cheering me on and expects me to finish — so we can celebrate together.

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