First class of Rider doctoral students graduate

Seven students make history among global health crisis
Rachel Stengel '14, '20

Joan Valentine '20 envisioned marching proudly across the stage at CURE Insurance Arena on May 16, making history as one of seven members of Rider's first class of doctoral students. The coronavirus outbreak disrupted those plans though, as the ceremony was postponed to November.

Undeterred by the pandemic, her husband ensured she still had a graduation ceremony. Valentine donned her graduation regalia and walked through her living room to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance." She even received a diploma and delivered a thank you speech for the first time as Dr. Valentine.

"Earning this degree is such a great feeling of accomplishment for me," says the principal of John Adams Middle School in Edison, N.J.

Dr. Kari McGann '20, superintendent of the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District, also earned a Doctor of Educational Leadership. She similarly commemorated the moment. Dressed in her cap and gown, she recorded a graduation speech for her eighth graders, stressing the importance of their achievements and celebrating with them as a member of the Class of 2020.

"This was a longtime dream come true for me," she says. "I wanted to go back and work on my doctorate for so many years and I didn't do it for a long time because I couldn't find a program that met my needs as a working mother. Rider offered the perfect program for me."

Dr. Amy E. Stella '00, '20 says choosing Rider's program was a self-fulfilling prophecy for her.

"I made a promise to myself after I earned my master's at Rider that if Rider ever offered a doctoral program in educational leadership I would be the first to enroll," says the director of curriculum, instruction and professional development for Northern Burlington County Regional School District. "Rider has an excellent reputation in preparing educational leaders."

Dr. Trudy Atkins '20, Dr. Nicole Dickens-Simon '04, '20, Dr. Phil Prassas '20 and Dr. Paryn Wallace '20 are the other four members of the inagural class. Rider's Doctor of Educational Leadership began in 2017. The 51-credit program is designed as a hybrid model with coursework both in person and online as well as two summer residencies. Students can complete the program in three years; two years are dedicated to coursework, while the third is focused on dissertation research and analysis.

McGann left her first class and said to Stella she wasn't sure if she could handle the rigor of the program.

"I remember her encouraging me that I could," McGann says. "Now we're part of the first class of graduates. I felt such a connection to the other cohort members and I'm so grateful for the professors who understood the balance between having a career and being a student."

Creating the program as a cohort model was intentional to foster connections among the students, says Dr. Leonard Goduto, associate professor and director of the Doctor of Educational Leadership program.

"They were very supportive and respectful of each other," he says. "It was in our plan for this to occur and it exceeded our expectations. As the inaugural cohort, they were an extremely ambitious group of professionals. The diversity of the group added to the variety of perspectives in each of the courses."

Cohort members worked in a number of roles within education, ranging from high school teacher to counselor to superintendent. One member even worked outside the traditional educational setting, employed by Educational Testing Service. The diversity of roles brought a range of important issues to light in the group's dissertation topics, including 9- to 14-year old girls' interest in STEM, teachers' approaches to classroom assessment and school safety preparedness, among others.

"The action-research dissertations were very well done," Goduto says. "I was extremely proud of their accomplishments. They truly represented the concept of a scholar-practitioner."

"I didn't want to just learn; I wanted to act," Valentine says. "I was able to take a passion of mine and cultivate it into something that can affect change and help my school community. I can't emphasize enough how much that meant to me."

While their program did not end the way the first cohort of doctoral students had envisioned with stay-at-home orders and a global health emergency, they are proud of their achievements nonetheless.

"I defended my doctoral dissertation on March 12, the day before school closures began in New Jersey. That certainly makes for a dramatic ending to my family’s Rider legacy," says Stella, whose father graduated in 1977 and mother attended Rider from 1960-62, as one of the first classes on the Lawrenceville campus. "My parents are 78 and one remaining thing they have said they wanted to see in their lives is me graduating with my Ed.D."