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Arkansas State University

Book Chapter Author Shekema Dunlap Thrives in Online Doctoral Program

A-STATE Ed.D. Educational Leadership student Shekema Dunlap

A breast cancer diagnosis threw Shekema Dunlap’s life into upheaval the first time she was a doctoral student in 2014. She has spent the last eight years not just surviving but also thriving.

“I never went back to school, but one of the promises I made to myself was that I would finish,” she said. “When the pandemic came, and everyone was in two minds about going to the grocery store, I said to myself, ‘This is the time.'”

Dunlap is enrolled in the online Doctorate of Education (Ed.D.) in Educational Leadership program at Arkansas State University (A-State). She is on track to graduate in 2023.

“I have been involved in online learning as a teacher for the past eight years, if not longer,” she said. “I am a big believer in the power of online learning.”

Dunlap founded IFE Academy in Atlanta in 2017. The all-virtual private institute for home-schooled students began as a brick-and-mortar learning environment in its inaugural year.

“Every teacher is not equipped for online learning,” she said. “There’s a skill set, an art, to being a virtual teacher. You can’t throw traditionally trained teachers into Zoom and call it virtual learning.

“It’s important to distinguish between people who understand learning theories, how the brain works and how people learn, how to still make connections with their students and how to show up for them in the most ways possible — even in an online environment. Not everybody can do that.”

In addition to the hard work that Dunlap has put into the online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership program, she wrote a chapter for an upcoming book titled Black Women Navigating Historically White Higher Education Institutions and the Journey Toward Liberation.

“I am really excited about it,” she said. “The editors, Dr. Stephanie Logan and Dr. Tyra Good, are faculty members at two different universities. I just finished the revisions.

“I also submitted a chapter on Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown to another publication called the Palgrave Handbook of Educational Thinkers.”

Change of Plans

Dunlap grew up in Atlanta, where she attended Georgia State University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree (2003) in English and a master’s degree (2007) in secondary English education.

“I never wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “When I finished undergrad, I opened a teen pregnancy prevention organization called Rachel’s Daughters, Inc. I wrote my first 501(c)(3) exemption application by myself, when I graduated in 2003.

“I had experiences that helped me understand the ramifications of teen pregnancy. My mother was a pregnant teen. A lot of the trauma I experienced as a child was because she was too young and didn’t have the support she needed.”

Dunlap is committed to preventing the suffering for others that she went through as the child of a teenager.

After several years of working in the nonprofit realm, Dunlap switched to teaching and eventually became an English department chair at Clayton County Public Schools.

“I decided to teach and impact more children,” she said. “I could be their dedicated teacher, get inside schools and touch the lives of more kids.

“I have never seen myself as an academic. When I finish this degree, though, I might do some consulting work or become a professor.”

After researching online doctoral degree programs, Dunlap found that A-State checked the boxes for her needs.

“I looked at the time required and the cost, which is one of the biggest considerations,” she said. “I wanted to be able to pay out of pocket; I didn’t want to go into more debt.

“Like most teachers, I already of tons of student loans. The cost of the program was a huge factor in my decision.”

So far, Qualitative Research & Evaluation is Dunlap’s favorite course in the Ed.D. curriculum, and she especially values the interactions with her fellow online students.

“Whatever the course is, I learn a lot from the conversations that we have,” she said. “My cohort is one of the biggest ones they have had at A-State. We were at least double the size of the first two cohorts for this program.

“We have superintendents, people who work at the state level, people who are building-level administrators, district-level leaders. So, the conversations that we have about the theories and the pragmatic pieces are very helpful.

“That’s the beauty of this group — I am with the smartest people. We teach each other. We go out and find additional resources and share them. Some of what we have come up with has been phenomenal.”

All for One

Dunlap, who will be the first person in her immediate family to earn a doctoral degree, has a lot going on at home, too. She and her husband, Deante, have a blended family of seven: Dunlap has four more from a previous marriage — Mario Holmes Jr. (25), Malique Holmes (23), Malcolm Holmes (20) and Massiah Holmes (17) — and Deante has one child, William (13).

“My kids are a little older now, so they’re not easily impressed,” she said. “I won my first national teaching award in 2008, and then a bigger national teaching award in 2011. They feel like, ‘That’s just Mom.’ They’ve always seen me achieve.”

Now that Dunlap is closing in on her promise to herself to add Dr. before her name, she is glad that she found her way to A-State’s online Ed.D.

“I have received good value from the program,” Dunlap said. “It’s about what you make of it. I have relationships in this program that will carry me for a long time. Dr. Topeka Small-Singleton and Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch have surrounded me with love and support.

“I also surround myself with other Black women scholars who have completed doctoral degree programs. I have reached out to them for help. All in that community have been willing to help me.”

Dunlap is also a member of the National Council of Teachers of English Standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusivity and a graduate student representative on both the AERA Leadership for School Improvement special interest group and the University Council for Educational Administration Researcher Development Program Planning Committee. She said it’s important to have foresight before becoming an online student.

“I would advocate for entering the Ed.D. in Educational Leadership program. I would also say that you have to know who you are and what you believe in before you enter any program,” she said. “You have to know the ultimate goal for your research.

“You want to finish, but who is going to benefit from your research? That’s the point of it all. It has to be about more than you. It’s a lot of work and effort. You have to remember your why.”

Learn more about A-State’s online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership program.

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