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Reflections on an Unconventional Path for Doctoral Students

By BETH HARPAZ

A new open-access book, Becoming a Scholar: Cross-Cultural Reflections on Identity and Agency in an Education Doctorate, tells the story of nine working professionals who enrolled in a part-time international Ed.D. (education doctorate) program at University College London. 

Professor Maria Savva (LaGuardia Community College) contributed a chapter about her experiences in the program. Savva and a fellow UCL student, Lynn Nygaard, also edited the book and co-wrote chapters analyzing its findings.  

Although the book focuses on a relatively specialized program, many aspects of the students’ travails seem universally relevant now thanks to the pandemic boom in distance learning. For example, as remote learners, with just one week per term on campus, they struggled to create a sense of community, using email and group chats for support. “In a strange turn of events, the topics in the book have suddenly become mainstream, instead of niche,” Savva observed in an email.

The book charts the students’ journeys on two levels, examining practical aspects of their long-distance, cross-cultural experiences, while also reflecting on their internal growth. “What does it mean to become a scholar?” Savva and Nygaard write in their opening chapter. “And at what point in the doctoral journey can we say that we have become one? Is it when someone hands us a degree and tells us that we can now call ourselves a doctor? Or is the process more internal – a gradual understanding of what it means to conduct research and belong to a scholarly community, culminating in a feeling that we are, indeed, scholars?”

Among other things, the students reckoned with the perception of Ed.D.s as less prestigious than Ph.D.s because they involve less research, and with the marginalization of working professionals within academia. Going from being experienced practitioners in their fields to being novices as students also meant struggling with protocols for scholarly writing and research, and knowing when to push back on unhelpful directives from doctoral supervisors. 

In her first-person account, Savva reveals that she ended up switching from an Ed.D. to a Ph.D., despite additional writing requirements, to ensure a direct path to her goal of working in higher ed. She also reflects on connections between her research topic and her background. She grew up in a Greek immigrant family in New York; her thesis examined intercultural development of English-speaking educators in international schools. 

“I enjoyed the privilege of being a white American,” Savva writes. “Yet I was also a female, growing up in an uneducated, working class and non-English speaking household.” That contributed to her interests “in identity formation, citizenship and intercultural development.” 

When Savva moved to Cyprus after years as a teacher in the U.S., she experienced “a sense of loss, confusion surrounding self-identity, and the feeling of being rejected by members of the host culture.” Interviewing Anglophone teachers in China and the Netherlands for her thesis, she “discovered that many of the stories the educators shared with me resonated with my own relocation experience.” 

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Maria Savva (Associate Professor and Program Director, International Studies, Education) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools

LaGuardia Community College