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Meet the 'Great Eight,' the IU doctoral students who just made history

May 11, 2016

The eight women who will complete their Ph.D. journey on Mother's Day.

The "Great Eight" women earned Ph.D. degrees at commencement, clockwise from upper left: Jada Phelps Moultrie, Shannon McCullough, Johari Shuck, Nadrea Njoku, Juhanna Rogers, Demetrees Hutchins, Jasmine Haywood and Tiffany Kyser. | PHOTO COLLAGE COURTESY OF THE SCHOOL OF EDUCATION

Eight black women who all graduated last weekend with doctoral degrees from the IU School of Education will continue to change the world around them, according to one IU educator.

The women, who call themselves "the Great Eight," formed a sister circle in the school to strengthen their ties, and developed relationships they all say have been vital to their success. They are: Jasmine Haywood, Demetrees Hutchins, Tiffany Kyser, Shannon McCullough, Nadrea Njoku, Jada Moultrie Phelps, Juhanna Rogers and Johari Shuck.

For a school that generally graduates between three and five doctoral students each year, to have eight students graduate with a Ph.D. from the School of Education is “pretty phenomenal,” interim executive associate dean Robin Hughes said.

“But while it’s significant to see them graduate and achieve all that they have, it’s also amazing to know these scholars are equipped to make big changes. They are social justice educators and when they see inequity, they cannot sit on their hands,” Hughes said. “And they’re keeping us accountable here at IU as well. They’re working to help us do what we need to do in order to not only recruit but to retain students, and to create a climate where students of color and women can thrive, but also where everyone can thrive.”

Six of the women were part of the School of Education's higher education and student affairs program, based on IU's Bloomington campus but with courses and job opportunities at IUPUI. The other two, Moultrie Phelps and Kyser, graduated from the school's urban education studies program.

Jasmine Haywood

Jasmine Haywood

"We intentionally and purposefully chose IUPUI as the campus on which we'd take classes and work," Jasmine Haywood said. "We all value the nontraditional student population that IUPUI caters to, in addition to the location in downtown Indianapolis."

Haywood has served as the managing editor of the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, and her time as both a student and an employee on the campus has convinced her that the "Great Eight" can leave a significant legacy on IUPUI.

"We want our collective accomplishments to provide opportunities for historically marginalized students who want to pursue a graduate degree," she said. "We have been in conversation with senior-level administrators about how to improve the climate for historically marginalized graduate students. And just as black women like Robin Hughes, Lori Patton Davis, Khaula Murtadha, Ronda Henry Anthony -- all of whom have Ph.D. degrees -- and others have paved the way for us, we want to increase opportunities and access for black women coming behind us."

Demetrees Hutchins

Demetrees Hutchins

"IUPUI has been my home since the fall of 2001," said Demetrees Hutchins. She began as a student and became a full-time staff member in the School of Education. The school's staff became both family and mentors. "Their guidance and advice throughout all stages of my academic and professional career was helpful," she said. "They took personal interest in my plight as a former foster youth, navigating higher education through the support of the Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholars program. They became the support structure I needed to persist and matriculate through to degree attainment several times over."

Many people helped through the years: Philip A. Seabrook, the initiator of the 21st Century Scholars program, was a catalyst in launching her institutional research and college readiness program assessment interests. Regina Turner and Claudette Lands provided safe spaces and outlets for students of color on campus; Genevieve Shaker and the School of Liberal Arts staff inspired her to learn more about philanthropy and nonprofits through program development work.

Tiffany Kyser

Tiffany Kyser

"It is remarkable that the experiences we have all shared, both positive and oppressive, offer a microcosm of the day-to-day interactions that occur in our campus community," said Tiffany Kyser, noting that "historically marginalized students continue to experience erasure of voice and negation of their lived experiences in the project of teaching, learning and matriculation in institutions of higher education."

But Kyser added that IUPUI has "a great opportunity to make the campus more welcoming; to ensure equitable access to academic opportunity and representation; and to realize high outcomes for all students, staff and faculty systemwide."

Kyser also believes IUPUI has "an opportunity to redress practices and institutional ways of being that are harmful, and to leave an equitable legacy for all students for years to come."

Kyser's mentors include Karen Kovacik, Seena Skelton, Kathleen King Thorius, Jim Scheurich and Ronda C. Henry Anthony.

Shannon McCullough

Shannon McCullough

Shannon McCullough was raised in Bloomington in an IU family. "Though I love the Bloomington campus," she said, "I sought out IUPUI as an environment that would provide exciting opportunities and a unique college experience." She said it lived up to those hopes.

"I came to IUPUI in 1999 for my undergraduate degree," she added. "Since then, not only have I advanced through three degrees on this campus, I also began my path in a professional career in academia. IUPUI has provided numerous opportunities as a full-time employee while pursuing my graduate degrees, and I have received great support for what I can contribute to my work through my studies in higher education. I have seen this campus move through tremendous growth and innovation and have been able to grow with it professionally."

McCullough has high regard for "what this campus stands for, the opportunities that we provide to our students and the culture we have here that sets us apart from other schools in our system. It is an honor to be recognized as someone who is making a mark in the history of this university," she added.

Jada Phelps Moultrie

Jada Phelps Moultrie

Life has thrown some curveballs at Jada Phelps Moultrie during her educational career.

"I quit my career in education after 13 years because I refused to engage in a broken education system until I learned more about the inequitable systemic structures," she said. She then realized that she could help find solutions.

"I saved for one year, working two full-time jobs so I could live off of an assistantship as a Ph.D. student. When I began the program, I met my husband, got married and then had two babies 20 months apart, one brought into this world because my husband was going to deploy," she said.

While her husband was deployed, Phelps Moultrie raised her children by herself while still tackling coursework. Eventually, they moved away, requiring that she complete her dissertation isolated from her circle of supporters. Despite occasional self-doubts, though, she was able to use her mentors and friends as inspiration to overcome the obstacles. Through it all, she kept forging ahead.

"When you see those who have inspired you and those who share your path achieving goals, you can rise above the issues," she said. "I never felt alone, and we kept each other grounded. We protected each other from failure."

Phelps Moultrie said her mentors include Jomo Mutegi and Scheurich.

Nadrea Njoku

Nadrea Njoku

Nadrea Njoku is a New Orleans native who came to Indianapolis just after Hurricane Katrina to join her college sweetheart, who had just enrolled at the School of Medicine.

"I looked into the School of Education to research my options, which led me to the higher education student affairs master's program," Njoku said. "After graduating from HESA, I joined several classmates and three other African Americans to start the cohort of our (current) doctoral program."

She got married around that same time and realized "I was in a completely different demographic" from when she was a Bloomington student in HESA. "I felt distant and isolated," she said. Njoku found herself working often with Rogers, and one night, they discussed uniting black women from both the Bloomington and IUPUI campuses. "At that first meeting, we had at least 10 women, even though we knew very little about one another," she said. "Two campuses, plus life and our studies, were keeping us in a silo when we should have been supporting each other."

That sparked a decision to organize the circle in the School of Education. It made a big difference. "We reach out when we need to -- even from a distance, if need be. We collaborate, even write together when possible," Njoku said. "What I am most proud of is that when the spirit led us to start the sister circle, we listened. That is our legacy -- being a sister to any woman who is open to it."

Juhanna Rogers

Juhanna Rogers

Juhanna Rogers arrived at IUPUI in 2005 with her 3-month-old son, Nile. "My goal was to make a positive impact on students of color pursuing their degrees at predominantly white institutions," she said. "Over the last 11 years, Nile and I have grown up on this campus, and IUPUI is like home to us thanks to the community of faculty, staff and students who have supported us."

She praised the support of many faculty and staff members, particularly black mentors, who helped her flourish, winning national and international awards. "Their support allowed me to develop the Hermano a Hermano international service project, which has helped dozens of IUPUI students study abroad in the Dominican Republic," Rogers said.

"Traveling with undergraduate students and watching their understanding of the world blossom before my eyes is one of the best gifts I've ever received," she said. The project "shaped every aspect of my scholarship and my aspirations as a scholar. IUPUI is a special place, and it will remain special to me as complete my degree requirements and move forward."

Johari Shuck

Johari Shuck

Johari Shuck credited assistance from "another sister scholar," Vicki Bonds, associate director for the Center for Research and Learning, in her IUPUI career. Working for CRL and programs like Upward Bound and 21st Century Scholars has shaped her goals.

"I have developed relationships at IUPUI with some of the most phenomenal high school and undergraduate students I've ever met," Shuck said. "I've seen them all develop, study abroad, engage in research, go to medical and/or graduate school, and other incredible things." To play even a small part in such success stories has been meaningful for her.

"I came from a nontraditional academic background compared to everyone in my master's cohort," she added. "Without a graduate assistantship, I would not have been accepted to IU's master's program in higher education and been able to continue on to the doctorate. My hope is that our individual and collective stories of sisterhood, perseverance and community commitment will inspire those who come behind us to persist in the face of challenging circumstances and remain committed to social justice through education."

These students' work aligns with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success and a vibrant community of scholars.

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