Patricia Cottonham is the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — and she is earning an EdD in Educational Leadership in her spare time. It should come as no surprise that she’s pursuing the Higher Education leadership concentration.
To say her job is demanding is an understatement and any spare time she has is in short supply. Her day can start in the early hours of the morning and end well after midnight. When she enrolled in the educational leadership doctoral program, she initially struggled to balance her erratic schedule with the challenges of a doctoral program.
“I have to admit that I learned to handle it a little bit better as the time went on. In the beginning, it was very difficult for me,” she admits. “It’s not an easy program — you need to make time for it in your life. Trying to carve out the time was difficult, but I wanted to do it because I really enjoyed the program.”
Pat (known as Vice President Cottonham around these parts) says it was a lot of small things that made pursuing her doctoral feel daunting.
“I was older, a little more advanced in my career, nervous about going back to school, nervous about whether I could fit it into my life, whether I could really do this 100 percent academic thing,” she says. “I hadn’t even written in APA style, even though I’ve honestly written so many letters as a professional over the years. It was all those little things — that weren’t little to me — that I was going to have to learn how to do.”
But, she says, “I don’t regret it at all. I would do it again.”
When you’re pursuing your doctorate in education and working full time, your work and school lives don’t exist in silos. Almost immediately, you can apply what you’ve learned in the classroom to your workplace and vice versa. The faculty’s support and expertise, she said, helped ensure her success.
“Being a student again helped me personally, but I think it also helped me to understand the students we serve even better,” she says. “Students don’t always make good choices, and sometimes we can’t do what students may ask us for, but when I had to understand what it’s like staying up through the night trying to write a paper or turn in a project, going to office hours, and everything else, it re-emphasized for me that being a student is not easy.
“Life can sometimes be difficult and throw some things your way. Whether you’re a parent who is trying to juggle a family and children and coming back, whether you’re a student who is coming back but has to work two or three jobs, or whether you’re a student who has made a mistake — I think with all of those situations, having been a student these last three years has helped me understand their experience better.”
The interplay of research and practice was also very helpful for Pat. She said it reminded her that the University’s best practices are embedded in research and validated the work she does on a daily basis.
“It was refreshing to see the things that we do come alive. Sometimes you just forget because they’re routine: you come to work, you see students, you fix problems, you go to activities, you calm and soothe and comfort and encourage. After you do that for awhile, you don’t think about it as much,” she says. “Being part of this program has helped to make me see that it is very important, what we do, and that feels so good.”
Now that she’s near the end of her program, Pat admits that she has some regrets.
“Some of the things I’ve learned I wish I would have known three or four years ago,” she says. “That is one of the benefits of doing the program earlier in your career. It gives you an appreciation for how all higher education works together.”
For those who are still concerned about keeping up with the demands of the program, Pat says, “If everybody comes into it knowing they’re doing their personal best, they’ll definitely get the motivation and encouragement from the faculty and staff within the department and the college. It’s attainable.”