Graduating ASU student Katie Alford / Courtesy photo

Doctoral grad discovers importance of community

By

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Arizona State University doctoral student Katie Alford was used to going it alone. She depended mostly on herself and worked hard at maintaining a high level of excellence.

Before defending her dissertation toward a PhD in English education on April 8, she served as a teaching assistant for ASU’s Writing Programs for several semesters. She earned a teaching award for her skill from ASU’s Graduate and Professional Student Association.

She researched and shared her work, presenting her findings and best practices locally and across the U.S. She published that work too, winning a national award: the 2018 CEL English Leadership Quarterly Best Article Award for the article, “Take Time to Write!: A Teacher’s Story of Writing Within a Community of Teacher Writers,” co-written with ASU English education Associate Professor Jessica Early.

And — the goal of most graduating students — she got a job. Alford will begin a tenure-track faculty position in fall 2019 at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois.

But Alford admitted that her most important lesson wasn’t about her subject matter. Instead, it was in learning to lean on others.

“My colleagues have taught me so much,” Alford said, “especially how learning does not happen in isolation; it happens in community.”

We spoke more with Alford about her ASU experiences and connections.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? 

Answer: I taught high school English here in the Valley for nine years before pursuing my PhD at Arizona State University. I came from Colorado after getting married and fell in love with the sunshine and warm weather. While teaching I realized I wanted to learn even more. I enjoyed preparing professional development curriculum for my school and having student teachers in my classroom, so I decided that teaching preservice teachers would be my next life adventure. After taking a few courses to check out the program I knew this was the place for me, and I officially applied.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I’ve learned so many things while here at ASU. Perhaps the most helpful was the importance of building a strong surrounding community. My peers have played such a vital role in my success: They’ve pushed me to be better, encouraged me when I was down and celebrated with me in my triumphs. I typically stay to myself, but I’ve learned that to grow you must talk and share your learning with others to make it more concrete and lasting. Discussion with other doctoral students has been a great source of learning for me.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU clearly has a stellar reputation in its preparation of graduate students. The work accomplished here is top-notch and the researchers are celebrated for their excellent contributions to the world. ASU offers robust programs because of its size and has the means to support a variety of research that has the capacity to change our world. This excites me and makes me proud to be a part of this community.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Pursuing a degree is like preparing for a marathon. It takes hard work for many weeks, months and years. It seems like an impossible task at the start, but incrementally you get closer and closer until you find yourself at the end. I remember feeling overwhelmed especially in the beginning and thinking I was never going to see the finish line, but here I am. Also, imposter syndrome is a real thing, so read about it!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I love meeting my friends for lunch at Engrained in the MU, or at ChopShop off campus. I often sat with colleagues to discuss the hard work and deep thinking from our classes, but more often we would just vent about the challenges of graduate school. Engrained has great food and lots of space to meet and catch up during lunch, and ChopShop is an oasis away from the rush of ASU.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be moving to Illinois for a tenure track job at McKendree University, a small private college. I will teach education courses and continue my research agenda focusing on the preparation of preservice English Language Arts teachers especially in regard to their confidence and competence in teaching writing.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: The United States education system. I believe a complete overhaul is needed. Corruption and bureaucratic gaming has shifted the educational landscape for too long. Real reform that is student-centered and focused on celebrating differences and not on creating test takers would and could improve the critical thinking skills of 21st-century learners, which is what I believe our focus should be. Complex problem-solving is what makes us different from computers, so we MUST ensure students have those skills in order to become not obsolete. Certainly $40 million would not be enough, but hopefully enough to shift the current focus.