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Lifelong Learner Mickey Fitch-Collins Shares Doctoral Journey

graduate student, doctoral candidate, online learning

A self-proclaimed lifelong learner, Mickey Fitch-Collins is a committed NCU doctoral student who currently is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Education with a specialization in Leadership in Higher Education. As the Assistant Director of the Educational Success Center for the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Mickey understands the importance of education and the hurdles students face. During her academic journey she has experienced the ups and downs of chasing a higher degree and has become a mentor to other students facing the same experiences.

Mickey is close to the finish line as a PhD candidate with the expected completion of her dissertation later this year. She shares her reasons for heading back to school, what specifically drew her to NCU, and the challenges of being an online student.

  1. Why did you decide to go back to school; what drew you to NCU?  

When I was about halfway done with my Master’s degree, I knew I wanted to get my doctoral degree. At that time, though, I had gone straight through from my undergrad to my Master’s program, so I knew that I needed (and wanted) some time “just” to work. About ten years after the completion of my Master’s degree, I started thinking very seriously about a terminal degree and what that could do for me. I had been away from formalized education for about a decade, but had consistently been working on the student support side of colleges and universities, so I was always adjacent to the doctoral journey and process. I was firmly planted in my home and my job in my area of northern Wisconsin, so I knew I needed something that was either close to me or online. Also, due to the nature of the work that I did in student affairs/higher education administration, I knew it was not practical or feasible for me to take time from work to complete a summer practicum on-site elsewhere in the country. I also knew that I did not desire, nor require, a brick-and-mortal traditional cohort program like what I had experienced during my Master’s program. Knowing those factors, I started looking at completely online programs that were geared towards working adults who were mid-career. I was familiar with NCU and the structure of the programs, and wanted an academic program that was going to equally challenge me, but also support my high level of intrinsic motivation to succeed.

  1. What are some of the most difficult challenges you have faced as a student and how did you overcome those challenges?

One of the most difficult challenges I have faced as a student is defending the legitimacy and hard work I put into my online program.  Because there is no actual NCU for me to point to in my local landscape, I felt that I needed to help those around me understand the accreditation, structure, and legitimacy of my university and the program I was pursuing.  I readily have told the tales of the changes in structure of my academic program, the design of the courses, and recently the shift to the non-profit status.  In our current climate where risk and higher education are seen as hand-in-hand, I have always needed to defend the honor of my education, and show evidence of my hard work.  Never has that been more evident than through my current dissertation journey! 

My second most difficult challenge has been combating loneliness or feelings of being adrift.  One of the reasons I selected NCU was because of the accelerated 8 and 12-week course models and the one-to-one teacher/learner model.  That said, there have been moments, days, and weeks where I have felt adrift in my academic sea of learning.  Because I don’t have classmates, nor others that are where I am at in my program, it can be isolating to be working through your academics.  When my friends, coworkers, and family see me working on my homework alone, it can be hard to help them understand what it is that I am doing, and why.  Another challenge has been having academic progress and assignments due every Sunday.  While this helps keep us on track and creating “deliverables” each week, it can be very difficult during times of the years where holidays, family gatherings, stressful work situations, or personal obligations occur. For just about four years now my life has been oriented around making an electronic delivery every Sunday.  I’ve overcome this by having the incredible support and patience of my wife, our family, and a few key mentors and friends. They get that time before and after work each day and weekends are generally consumed by academics.

  1. What is the best lesson you learned as an online student at NCU?  

The best lesson I learned is the need for three things: 1) organization, 2) mobility, and 3) support.  I have a relentless drive for organization of my articles, books, websites, and indexes.  Being able to easily find a resource in my home office, online, through RefWorks (where all of my dissertation articles live!), or wherever I am at has been huge. Having a dedicated space at home that is just “mine” for academics and nothing else gives me a physical destination and a mindset to operate efficiently and effectively. Secondly, I have learned to be incredibly mobile with my academics.  Due to our books being electronic, our work being done through Desire2Learn, email, and Office365, I am able to go about my academic journey wherever I am. Whether that is from my home in northern Wisconsin, a hotel in Denver, my family’s basements and dens, or a plane at 30,000 feet, I am able to work remotely with ease. Because I trust the electronic resources provided by NCU, I can still engage in an active life with my wife, our family, and my work and I can do homework and reading anywhere. I have been known to read my textbooks via an app on my phone waiting in line at a store, annotate articles in between meetings, and write parts of my dissertation on a plane. I recently worked on Chapter 2 progress of my dissertation from an Air BnB while on a vacation with my wife! Lastly, speaking of support….the biggest lesson is that you need to create a small, tightknit support network for yourself as you go through your NCU journey.  I have less than ten people that I regularly talk to about my doctoral journey (outside of my chair, of course!), even less about the dissertation process and the support needed through that. Keeping an intimate and close-knit support network has been key to not only keeping from feeling alone, but also getting rallied and supported when I am having a stumbling block. Picking those people and letting them know they are in your support network is important—they are in this for the long haul with you too! My wife has been my #1 supporter, motivator, and grounding force from my pre-application period to every day, and that has made all the difference.

  1. How has the flexibility of NCU's programs helped you balance family life, work, and school?

As I stated prior, I knew I didn’t want (or need) a face-to-face synchronous program. Because I have always been working full-time at universities during this journey, I knew I needed a program that not only understood my life, but lived my life as well. I am able to engage in my academics early in the morning, after work, and during long stretches on the weekends. Because I don’t have to regularly meet with someone about it, and can communicate asynchronously with my faculty and chair, it allows me to continue to work and live my life while being an active student. At times things have been very out of balance—with the loss of a family member, the loss of a job, major illness, and my own wedding—but I have been able to continue my progress at each turn. 

  1. How are you utilizing what you’re learning as an NCU student in your current job? 

I work with a variety of programs at my university that are oriented around serving underserved students, first-generation students, and students with disabilities. I have worked in residence life and student affairs. Beyond traditional university work, I worked with an organization that was “higher ed adjacent” providing professional development. I have been able to use some of the projects I have created and completed at NCU within my work roles (such as work on food and housing insecurity, attrition with early-career student affairs professionals, and creating efficient auxiliary budget structures). My dissertation, which examines potential institutional influences on self-efficacy in non-academic middle managers, comes directly from observations I have made through my own supervision of teammates and experiences in my career and those around me. I am a true lifelong learner.