Cal State Bakersfield has several reasons to celebrate as commencement approaches: it will be graduating its highest number of graduates ever and its first class of doctoral students.

A total of 2,312 bachelor’s degrees and 462 graduate degrees will be awarded this year, according to CSUB. Approximately 1,708 undergraduates will participate in Friday's commencement, and 348 graduates will participate in the hooding ceremony Wednesday. But all eyes will be on 12 students who have spent the last three years pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership.

“This inaugural class of doctoral graduates is a turning point, not just for CSUB but for the region we serve,” said CSUB President Lynnette Zelezny in a press release.

Bringing a doctoral program to CSUB's campus has been a long time coming, including the CSU system as a whole.

Prior to 2005, doctoral degrees were offered jointly through a partnership with a University of California campus or other state doctoral institutions, according to CSU's website. However, Senate Bill 724 authorized CSU to independently offer doctor of education degree programs for educational administrators. Later on, doctor of physical therapy and doctor of nursing practice degree programs were introduced.

About eight years ago, CSUB entered into a four-year agreement with Fresno State, which was offering a doctoral program, so local students could pursue their degree, according to John B. Stark, Ph.D., director of the doctoral program in educational leadership (DPEL) at CSUB. Those students, however, would be graduates of Fresno State. 

Then three years ago, CSUB received the authorization it needed to implement DPEL. The program is focused on preparing P-12 and community college leaders to advance educational opportunities and provide equitable academic achievement for diverse groups of students, according to its website. Whatever an individual's personal goals are, Stark said they are all working toward improving local schools.

"We’re getting some local improvements on specific problems. How do you deal with chronic low performance?" he said. "Our kids in this region are just as capable as anywhere else, but we don’t always have the best prep, so we look at how we can fix that so they’re fully capable about chasing their dreams."

Two groups were enrolled in the first cohort, or class — teachers or counselors and administrators, Stark said. Most saw they could advance in their career by obtaining a doctoral degree, while others, like Edward Gonzalez, a math intervention specialist at Emerson Middle School, were seeking answers.

"I work with struggling students and I wanted answers. But as I was going through the program, I realized there really aren't answers. No one can give you the answers, you have to find them in your field," he said.

Students in the program have been attending classes for eight semesters on Saturdays, including summer semesters. Since most are full-time working professionals with families, program coordinators felt it was the best way to help them balance their work and school lives.

"I would go seven or eight weeks straight without a day off," said Rhonda Dawson, director of Extended Education at CSUB.

In addition to completing their assignments, taking care of families and going to work, they had to tackle the ever-daunting dissertation. Gonzalez focused on what benefits do kids and adults receive when they are learning from kids. Dawson examined the effects of isolation on adult learners' motivation.

"Even though I received great advice, I still didn’t know if I could do it," Dawson said. "Getting started on the dissertation was really scary."

There have been challenges along the way with the first cohort, Stark said, including figuring out the best timeline to complete dissertations. But he said they have been "troopers" through it all.

"Everybody is super excited, and it's just a huge sigh of relief to get to the final mile post in this marathon," he said.

As they look back on their three-year journey and eagerly await their hooding ceremony Wednesday, an overwhelming sense of accomplishment is felt.

"To just crush every goal throughout the program and gain confidence as you’re doing it, it’s an incredible feeling," Dawson said. "Making your family proud and being an example to others that this can happen. Sometimes we think these goals are outside our boundaries."

For those considering whether they want to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership, Gonzalez says "it's totally worth it."

"It’s an important responsibility because we want the community to have the best education," he said. "Joining this program is joining a group of people that’s trying to push education forward."

A "soft" deadline for fall 2019 applications is May 31. For more information, visit www.csub.edu/edd.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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