Whitfields Earn Doctoral Degrees Together
BY SAM STRASNER
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.”