Whitfields Earn Doctoral Degrees Together

He was the 13th of 13 children, raised in Helena by parents whose opportunities for formal education ceased before high school.

She grew up with aspirations to become a physical therapist before children took her heart and led her in a different direction.

Together, Sherman and Sonya Whitfield have dedicated their careers to education and their lives to each other and their two children, Morgan and Kyra.

On Friday, May 10, their shared path led them to Arkansas Tech University’s John E. Tucker Coliseum in Russellville. There, they were among 21 graduates who earned the Doctor of Education degree in school leadership at the close of the spring 2019 semester.

It was the culmination of an educational journey that saw Dr. (Mr.) Whitfield and Dr. (Mrs.) Whitfield work on and attain three advanced degrees together, beginning with their master’s degrees and their educational specialist credentials.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve done,” said Sonya. “We’ve raised a family. We’ve done this together from the master’s degree on while maintaining our work and church responsibilities. I’m very proud of what we’ve done, but I’m also very humbled. We’ve been very blessed and fortunate to complete this journey, much less complete it together.”

Sonya grew up outside North Little Rock and graduated from Oak Grove High School.

“I took a job one summer in a daycare, and that was it,” said Sonya. “I knew I was supposed to be in education.”

Sherman was an undergraduate senior at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff when he met Sonya, who was teaching in a local elementary school.

Suddenly, his plans of pursuing a career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation were competing with an increasingly attractive alternative.

“I thought, you know, it would be pretty good to raise a family, be able to teach school and be on that same schedule,” said Sherman. “It really worked out well for us. After I started teaching, I decided to go and get my administrator’s license and Sonya tagged along for moral support. She ended up joining as well, so we worked on our master’s and specialist degrees together.”

Sherman is director of pupil services in the central office for the Pulaski County Special School District (PCSSD).

“He’s very serious about equity and doing what is right for students,” said Sonya when asked about her husband. “He’s not afraid to make the hard calls. He’s a man of integrity. He’s going to do what is right no matter what the fallout is. Those are very admirable qualities, and it’s hard, because it means sometimes you are going to stand alone. He’s willing to do it if it’s what is going to be best for kids.”

Sonya is principal at Baker Elementary School in the PCSSD.

“She is totally an educator,” said Sherman when asked about his wife. “That’s disseminated through the building she is responsible for, the educators who are under her, the students who are in the building and our peers within our district. She has a level of respect because she is the consummate professional. When I go into different buildings, I am known as Mrs. Whitfield’s husband…and I’m okay with that.”

Sonya’s dissertation focused on the impact that National Board Certified Teachers have on student achievement in mathematics and reading in the PCSSD. Sherman wrote his dissertation about the experiences and perceptions of students who attended segregated and desegregated schools.

“I often say that I am the student that I serve,” said Sherman. “In my own learning, there were gaps. It allows me to be more sympathetic and empathetic to the students that I serve. We are still under desegregation in the Pulaski County Special School District, so we’re still under the eye of the federal courts. Being able to have an application in my dissertation to what I actually do in my job sphere was very practical…the understanding of that process from historical and sociological aspects. It really shed a lot of light on the work that I do.”

Dr. Wayne Williams served as Sonya’s dissertation chair.

“Dr. Williams was amazing,” said Sonya. “I knew that if I e-mailed him, I would get an answer very quickly. He checked in on me and provided a lot of positive feedback. It really just felt like he was pushing for me when I felt like I needed a break. He was in my corner and very, very helpful. I’ll never forget him and how he stood by me.”

Sherman received guidance from two dissertation co-chairs, Dr. John Freeman and Dr. Christopher Trombly.

“They walked us through the process,” said Sherman. “We had to do the work, but if we were willing to do it, they were there to give us the support we needed. I am so very thankful for that.”

Now that the process is complete and the degrees are in hand, Sonya and Sherman are reflective on the life they have shared together and the people who helped them achieve their ultimate educational goal.

“I made a promise to my grandmother years ago that I was going to attain this,” said Sonya. “Even in those difficult moments, I could still hear her voice saying ‘you can do this, you can do this, you can do this.’ She’s no longer here, but I always felt it. I know she’s celebrating.”

“To be here, in this place and in this moment…is awesome,” said Sherman. “I’m not a very sentimental guy, but it’s very moving for both of us. I stand on the shoulders of giants…people who came before me and did not have the opportunities I’ve been given. To represent the past generations of my family, I am in awe. The worst thing for me is not failing…it’s not trying. Do it. Just do it. Don’t leave it in your mind five years from now, ‘I wonder if I had.’ Do it.”

ATU to Celebrate Commencement May 9-11

Arkansas Tech University will confer approximately 1,700 academic credentials during five spring 2019 graduation ceremonies May 9-11 at John E. Tucker Coliseum in Russellville.

Arkansas Tech-Ozark Campus will conduct its graduation ceremony at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 9.

Arkansas Tech will host a commencement ceremony for its Graduate College at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 10.

Graduates from the College of Education and the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences will walk in a 10 a.m. ceremony on Saturday, May 11.

The 2 p.m. Saturday commencement will feature graduates from the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of eTech.

The final commencement ceremony of the weekend will begin at 6 p.m. Saturday. It will include graduates from the College of Business, the College of Natural and Health Sciences and those earning an associate’s degree or an undergraduate certificate from the campus in Russellville.

The 10 a.m. Saturday ceremony will include the induction of ATU alumni Truman Hill of Russellville, Major Gen. Gary W. Johnston of Fort Belvoir, Va., George C. Mitchell III of Denton, Texas, and Lt. Col. William J. Sidebottom of Springfield, Va., into the Arkansas Tech Hall of Distinction.

Arkansas Tech will also recognize its most outstanding seniors — Alfred J. Crabaugh Award winner Jayson Simmons of Jacksonville, Margaret Young Award winner Brooklyn Woodworth of Harrison and Jill Lestage Brown Service Leadership Award winner Sydney Stone of Clarksville — on Saturday.

For more information about Arkansas Tech commencement, contact the Tech Registrar’s Office at (479) 968-0272 or visit www.atu.edu/registrar/graduation.php.

“That’s What Made It Worth It”

Many dream of achieving their goals. Some have enough grit to pursue them.

A handful have the tenacity to risk it all in order to live their dreams, if only for a day.

For Arkansas Tech University football student-athlete C.J. Johnson, that day was Oct. 27, 2018.

Prior to that fateful afternoon at Paul Laird Field in Durant, Okla., Johnson had appeared in 10 career games over two seasons at Arkansas Tech and had been credited with four tackles.

An injury to regular ATU starting linebacker K.J. Reid opened the door for Johnson to be among the starting 11 on defense when the Wonder Boys faced Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

With only three weeks remaining in his senior season, it was the opportunity Johnson had been pursuing since his dreams of gridiron glory were born on the flag football fields of his youth in Hattiesburg, Miss.

“I had inclinations (that I was going to start) on Monday of that week, but I don’t think it was really until Wednesday when I knew I was going to start,” said Johnson. “I knew I needed to prepare myself to play good like I did every week. That’s the way our coaches taught us to prepare.”

Johnson was integral in Arkansas Tech building and maintaining a 10-6 lead as the fourth-quarter clock approached double zero. He had made eight tackles, twice his career total coming into the day.

“It was a really exciting day and fun to be able to play at that level…to make that kind of impact on the game,” said Johnson. “I had a lot of anxiousness before the game and excitement during.”

Then came the final meaningful play of the game.

Southeastern Oklahoma State quarterback Rollin Kinsaul delivered a fourth-down pass across the middle in hopes of connecting with a receiver. Those hopes were dashed and the Wonder Boys’ first road victory over the Savage Storm since 1992 was secured when Johnson collided with the intended receiver and broke up the pass with 40 seconds remaining.

But there was very little celebrating on the Arkansas Tech sideline. Everyone close to the play knew something was terribly wrong.

“The first thing I remember is opening my eyes and not really being able to move anything,” said Johnson.

Brett “Duke” Waldon, head athletic trainer at ATU, raced onto the field to provide care to the fallen Wonder Boy.

“The first person I remember seeing is Mr. Duke, and he was just trying to get me to stay calm,” said Johnson. “It was scary. I never want to feel it again. It was very reassuring to have (Waldon) there because I knew he was going to do everything in his power to make sure I was okay.”

Soon after came local emergency medical technicians, an ambulance and a trip to nearby AllianceHealth Durant hospital.

Many times these procedures are precautionary in nature. This was not one of those times.

Within eight hours of the final play at Paul Laird Field, Johnson was flown to Little Rock to receive advanced care at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He had suffered an injury that doctors later stated can lead to paralysis.

The surgery performed at UAMS by Dr. David Bumpass restored Johnson’s ability to walk. Physical therapy and the support of his family in the months since has allowed him to regain his strength.

“I feel pretty good,” said Johnson when asked how he is doing five months later.

Persistence allowed Johnson to live his dream on Oct. 27, 2018. It was that same quality that allowed him to walk on a football field in his Wonder Boys’ uniform one last time.

Arkansas Tech celebrated its senior football players before the final home game of 2018 on Nov. 3 at Thone Stadium at Buerkle Field in Russellville. One-by-one, they walked to midfield and received congratulations for their efforts.

Johnson began his journey to midfield in a wheelchair. Then, with about 20 yards to go, he rose to his feet and walked the remaining distance…one week after he nearly lost the ability to ever do so again.

“It meant a lot to me,” said Johnson. “I really wanted to show everybody that God had worked a miracle with me.”

An electrical engineering major at ATU, Johnson is on pace to earn his bachelor’s degree in May 2020.

“It’s been a tough major, but my professors and the head of the department have worked with me, even before my injury, to make sure I understand things,” said Johnson.

He plans on pursuing a career in the energy industry with an eye toward becoming an entrepreneur.

It all poses one question: was it worth it?

For Johnson, the answer is yes.

“I feel like since I’ve been through this…one my coaches told me this is one of the worst things that could happen to somebody…so I feel like I should be able to get through anything else that happens to me,” said Johnson. “Gaining different experiences, different friendships, meeting different people who have made an impact on my life…that’s what made it worth it.”

ATU Graduates Reflect Upon Achievements

For some, the anticipation of commencement ceremonies at Arkansas Tech University on Saturday, Dec. 15, was overwhelming.

“The nerves…I couldn’t sleep last night,” said Jarred Thommen, who was the first graduate in line at Tucker Coliseum for the 10 a.m. ceremony. “I was up until 2 a.m. I only got a few hours sleep, but around 7 a.m. I figured I might as well get ready and get here. I had all these things in my mind…I was really excited.”

Thommen’s degree was one of 1,146 academic credentials received by ATU graduates during ceremonies closing the fall 2018 semester.

He originally intended to be a nuclear physics major, but he switched along the way and received his Bachelor of Science degree in geology on Saturday morning.

“I’ve learned so much that it’s hard to even count all the different ways that Tech has affected me,” said Thommen, who was among approximately 250 ATU graduates wearing first generation graduate stoles atop their graduation robes on Saturday. “The curriculum is strong and the professors in geology are very thorough, helpful and generous with their time. If I ever had any questions, they would be right there to help me and guide me through it.”

Thommen pointed to geology faculty members Dr. Jason Patton, Dr. Michael Davis and Dr. Jacob Grosskopf as the most influential mentors during his studies at ATU.

Originally from Salisbury, Conn., Thommen said his first choice is to remain in Arkansas to begin his career, possibly with the state government or an environmental consulting agency.

“It’s surreal that it’s even come to this point,” said Thommen when asked about receiving his degree. “It’s been three long years. This is the fulfillment of a dream that I set out for myself. I wanted to become a scientist, and I did it. It means more to me than anything. It’s a testament to my perseverance through everything.”

Anna Holt also knows about perseverance. A family illness and a subsequent desire to remain close to home were among the reasons she chose Arkansas Tech. The support network she found on campus helped her persist to earn a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering degree.

“(ATU) grew on me,” said Holt, who resides in Conway. “I made a lot of friends here. It just fit. All of the professors have been there for me, even in hard times. I think that’s what kept me here, going to school and striving to finish. I wanted to finish what I started no matter how hard the struggle was.”

Holt described mechanical engineering faculty members Dr. John Krohn and Dr. Ehsan Hosseini as being “understanding and patient” in helping her achieve her academic goals. She has accepted a job as an engineer for Plastic Ingenuity Inc.

“It’s a big relief,” said Holt of commencement day. “It has been such a long road, and I think for me it’s more than just the degree. It’s a big milestone in my life, and it’s something that I was able to reach. It’s a confidence thing for me and proving to myself that I could do it.”

Margaret Whitfield hopes the Bachelor of Science degree in hospitality administration that she received from ATU on Saturday provides other non-traditional students with confidence.

“I’m setting the example that it’s never too late to go back and get an education,” said Whitfield. “I’ve made great friends, I’ve had great teachers and I’ve enjoyed the entire experience. Today means that I complete a goal that I set, and it sets me up for a better rest of my life.”

Whitfield began college in 2003. After shepherding her children to their teenage years, she enrolled at Arkansas Tech and met hospitality administration faculty member Susan West.

“She is awesome,” said Whitfield when asked about West. “She’s crazy and she’s great. We love her. It’s her personality and the way she teaches. It’s everything.”

Whitfield has a career goal of working in hotel management.

Karmen Stephens’ career path will begin as a supervisor in training for Tyson Foods at its Dardanelle facility. She earned that opportunity by completing the ATU Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture business with an emphasis in animal science.

“I made it,” said Stephens. “It’s been a long four years and a stressful four years, but I’m thankful for every obstacle and challenge that I was faced with because I was able to overcome them and get to graduation.”

Stephens, who is from Little Rock, was one of seven fall 2018 ATU graduates who completed the steps necessary to earn the Tradition Keeper designation from the ATU Alumni Association.

As a result, she, Angela Barraza, Bailey Harris, Jaelyn Herrera, Ty Reasnor, Hannah Simmons and Esther White wore special green cords during their commencement ceremonies.

Nate Robertson chose an even more personal accessory for his graduation regalia.

A product of Paris, Robertson received his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering degree on Saturday morning while displaying a message atop his cap that shared the philosophy that propelled him to commencement day. It read: you only fail when you stop trying.

“The secret to getting through college is not being the smartest person,” said Robertson, “it’s seeing how many times you can get knocked down and keep going.”

Homecoming 2018: Complete Coverage

Arkansas Tech University Homecoming 2018 provided students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends with an opportunity to celebrate ATU and its traditions Oct. 15-20.

Highlights from the week included the crowning of senior Blair Miller of Woodlawn as the 2018 ATU Homecoming queen and the selection of junior Aubree Snow of Berryville as the winner of the 2018 Tech’s Got Talent competition.

Links to Homecoming videos and photos from throughout the week are listed below.

Homecoming Pep Rally (Monday, Oct. 15)



Tech’s Got Talent Preliminaries (Tuesday, Oct. 16)



Party at the Tower (Wednesday, Oct. 17)


Greek Step Show (Wednesday, Oct. 17)



Play Unified (Thursday, Oct. 18)



Champagne Bingo Luncheon (Friday, Oct. 19)


Homecoming Golf Classic (Friday, Oct. 19)


Tech’s Got Talent Finals (Friday, Oct. 19)



Tech Open House (Saturday, Oct. 20)


Golden T Society Induction (Saturday, Oct. 20)


Party at the Plaza (Saturday, Oct. 20)



Homecoming Queen Crowning and Game (Saturday, Oct. 20)


Crowning Video

Game Video

Alumni and Friends Reception (Saturday, Oct. 20)


Col. George T. Hudgens Evening of Excellence (Saturday, Oct. 20)