Monday, March 19, 2007

Flow: From There to Here

Flow: From There to Here

Occasionally, each of us experiences moments of transcendent clarity, moments that define and shape the direction of our lives for years to come. Almost fourteen years ago, I had that kind of experience when I graduated from cosmetology school and embarked on what I thought would be a life long career in the fashion and beauty industry. As part of maintaining my skills, I attended an industry show featuring a well-known artist. Emblazoned across the backdrop of the stage in six foot tall red letters were the words education offers options.

As I sat in my chair, I hardly noticed the artist working on the stage because he was eclipsed by the message in those words. For the entirety of the show, I turned the phrase over and over in my mind and when I left, I knew exactly what I had to do. The very next week, I went to the local community college and enrolled in classes. This might not seem like a monumental event in many people’s lives, but in mine it was breaking the traditions of generations of women in my family.

As a high-school drop out at the age of seventeen, education seemed like a dream to me—after all, my mother had only graduated from high school, my grandmother from the ninth grade, and there is no record of my great-grandmother ever attending school. Indeed, we do not even know her name, much less anything about her education. Considering the area of the country she was from and the times in which she lived, it is doubtful that she ever attended school. Girls from small towns like Flea Hill in backwater North Carolina simply weren’t afforded the option of education of any kind, especially when their daddy was the town drunk.

The message of that moment at the industry show was very clear in my mind: education was the only thing that would prevent me from repeating the story of abuse and poverty which had been my mother’s story, and my mother’s mother’s story, and so on down the generations. The only way I would break the degrading cycle which generations of women in my family had endured was to get all the learning and understanding I could.

Although formal education had never been a strong tradition in my family, I was raised by a mother who valued and nurtured a deep love of reading widely and deeply. Despite the poverty of paycheck in my family, my mother tried to ensure that we were surrounded with books from the library and ample opportunity to explore and learn from our own experience. Many of my earliest memories are of playing school with my many siblings and as I grew older, I became the “teacher” of our little “classroom.” I taught several of my younger siblings how to read, how to do simple math problems, anything I was learning in grade school was fair game for me to teach the little ones at home.

Early in my undergraduate career, I suddenly found myself the divorced mother of a five month-old little boy. Suddenly my career trajectory of singing with major opera houses in Europe was altered and I had to find a new path. I marched down to the advisement office and declared, “I need to graduate as soon as possible. Considering the class I already have, what department will get me out of here the fastest?” My advisor laughed with me and then went to work finding which department would accept the vast majority of my credits so that I could graduate the soonest and “get a real job.” This lead me to change my area of study from vocal performance to psychology, a change that I will be forever grateful for.

After years of pursuing a performance career, I suddenly found a renewed interest in education and the learning process while earning my “accidental degree” in Psychology. Through my extensive work in the animal behavior labs at Utah State University, I gained a solid foundation in the principles of applied learning and behavior theory with a heavy emphasis on quantitative research methods. While acknowledging that numbers tell and important part of the story, I began to wonder where the human face of psychological research was. Even though I was trained as an applied behavioral researcher, I questioned the ability of behaviorism to account for many of the learning phenomena within my own experience.

In my studies for my Masters degree in Instructional Technology, I found the human face and voice of the learner in qualitative research methodologies. I also discovered that quantitative research validates the story of qualitative research while qualitative research authenticates the numbers of quantitative methods. In my further studies of instructional design and learning theory, I discovered I had a serious predilection to know why and how it all fit together. I found myself drawing diagrams on napkins and on the backs of menus and leading impromptu study sessions for fellow IT students about the relationships between learning theories and instructional design theories.

After graduating, I left school to work in the field as an instructional designer for a large firm. It was challenging and rewarding work, but I was frequently left with the same questions unanswered and a yearning for a deeper understanding of adult learners and how their life history affects their ability to self-regulate the learning process. Consequently, when the opportunity presented itself to return to school to earn a Ph.D., it was an easy decision—I had realized that if I wanted answers to my questions I was going to have to research them myself!

My path to graduate school has truly not been one that I have set out on a predetermined course. Much like a river, I have flowed with the landscape of my life as I have tried to navigate through the seemingly insurmountable challenges placed in my way. While my path as a scholar/mother has been circuitous and tumultuous at times, from the moment I read the words “Education offers options,” I have never wavered in my belief that I would eventually end up exactly where I am today.

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