For Vanessa Vales-Lewis, Nothing About Earning a Doctorate Has Been Ordinary

Vanessa Vales-Lewis (Photo courtesy of Vales-Lewis)

Vanessa Vales-Lewis’ extended family was looking forward to coming to her Graduate Center doctoral commencement this June, including relatives from as far away as Haiti and Grenada. But, in this extraordinary time of COVID-19, they will have to wait another year to cheer for her as she collects her diploma.
But, Vales-Lewis says, there is still much to celebrate. She is the first member of her family to receive a doctorate. And her family has been a part of her journey toward a Ph.D. in urban education all along the way. Her husband and mother attended her dissertation defense, which took place just one week before the start of social distancing. “They came prepared with questions,” she says. Since her defense, she has had to distance from her mother, a nurse who works with COVID-19 patients.
The subject of her dissertation grew out of her growing family. Vales-Lewis, a science educator who is currently teaching remotely, began her doctorate with a focus on students of color and achievement in STEM, a longtime passion of hers. In the course of researching, she had two children. The experience of her pregnancy changed her course and became the new focus of her doctoral research.
Forbes magazine documented her story along with the stories of 12 other women this month in “13 Doctoral Women of Color: Thriving Amid Missing Graduation Due to COVID-19.” Vales-Lewis is a member of a Facebook support group for women doctoral students, and she responded to a call from another member of the group who was writing the article for Forbes.
The Graduate Center caught up with Vales-Lewis in between remote teaching, parenting two toddlers, and revising several chapters of her dissertation for publication.
The Graduate Center: You describe your dissertation as a very personal one. How did the topic come about?
Vales-Lewis: Within my second year, I got pregnant with my first child and I started experiencing all of these challenges and health conditions that were life threatening. I was struggling with my own self-care. Then the idea of documenting my health experiences was suggested to me by my committee.
I started keeping an obstetric journal or monthly pregnancy journal. And that ended up sparking the ideas form my topic, which was on maternal wellness: self, matrescence, obstetric violence, and self-care.
I was able to document my experience and put a voice into academia that is not there. You often learn about obstetric violence, which is violence against women in the delivery room, and you often learn about the transition to motherhood through more theoretical perspectives, or you're learning about it in statistics and public health, but you never really hear about the voice behind these big numbers that you see.
GC: What do you hope to do now? 
Vales-Lewis: I'm currently rewriting my first three dissertation chapters to go into a wellness book co-edited by my professors Konstantinos Alexakos and Kenneth Tobin (emeritus).
With my background in public health as well as teaching, I'd love to work within birth, education, informing the education policies. Even working in academia and blending the two. Fighting for women's rights in general, that muted voice.
GC: Any advice to women in particular and aspiring students about completing a doctorate?
Vales-Lewis: I think you press on. I entered a five-year program and it took me six years. I had two children in between and I'm married and I have responsibilities, student debt, a full-time job. …  I think it's important to listen and understand the difference between a stop and a quit. I made a decision halfway through my doctoral career to blow up what I had started as a dissertation topic with lots of research … and started fresh halfway through. It's okay to restart.
I hope that this opens doors for other students who are looking to find their way and to find different ways of doing projects. It's not always the cut and dry scientific-type of methodology, but you can also do something very qualitative in linking to your own life and get a doctorate.

Submitted on: MAY 8, 2020

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