At the age of 27, I proudly walked across the University of Florida graduation platform to receive my PhD. As a young, Nicaraguan-American woman desiring to seek justice within vulnerable communities, I knew this degree would prepare and empower me to live out my calling in inexplicable ways. Now, four years later, I clearly see the vast benefits my degree offered me as a woman of color. Whenever other women of color ask me if they should pursue their PhDs, without hesitation, I strongly encourage them to do so.
My decision to pursue a PhD was an easy one to make. I had been in the trenches of international nonprofit development since my junior year of undergrad. My best friend and I co-founded P4H Global, a nonprofit organization focused on training and equipping teachers in Haiti. With 60% of Haitian students dropping out before finishing elementary school, we knew we had found our God-given calling. We were fueled by our passion to make a positive impact in Haiti’s educational system.
As years passed, P4H Global grew exponentially in reach and impact, but we kept running into a problem. Conversations with individuals/organizations that could help us make a greater impact never went past a general “congratulations.” People would be moved by our story but would not want to move into partnership with our organization. We were always left wondering why we could not build bridges that could ultimately help bring our teacher training into more parts of Haiti. We took time to seriously reflect on what was keeping doors closed. This time of reflection led us down an introspective path.
My best friend and I are young, single, women of color (I’m Latina and she is Haitian). The gatekeepers we were continually meeting were older, married, white males. We saw our male counterparts in the nonprofit sector quickly gain partnerships and audiences with individuals we were denied access to. We knew that to be taken seriously, something had to change. We had to gain credibility.
Earning a PhD in Program Development & Evaluation opened front doors, back doors, sliding doors, and every other imaginable door for us. Being introduced as Dr. Priscilla Zelaya and Dr. Bertrhude Albert (my best friend), actively combatted prejudices that may have been present because of our distinct demographics. Almost overnight, with our new titles we were being introduced to Haitian and U.S. government officials, major nonprofit directors, and prominent business leaders. Today, P4H Global is the largest teacher training nonprofit in Haiti, and I am certain our PhD’s significantly contributed to our advancement.
Now, don’t get me wrong. A PhD is more valuable than a flashy title. Our degrees helped to radically transform the way we see and understand the world around us. After years of sleepless nights and tears of exhaustion, we saw how our PhD’s increased our capacity to lead P4H well. Specifically, we gained:
- Increased ability to identify and solve problems through the art of research
- Increased knowledge of program development and evaluation
- Increased critical thinking and creativity
- Exposure to research-based practices that improved our programs in Haiti
- Growth of social networks
Personally, I have grown as a thinker and have gained confidence in presenting my ideas in clear and concise ways. Professionally, our organization had a clear shift in how we do program evaluation and how we measure our impact. Additionally, the gatekeepers that once only “congratulated” us, are now referring to us as experts.
Let’s be clear, I don’t think it’s fair or right for a professional title to be the “make it or break it” factor for some partnerships. While I am hopeful this won’t be the case forever, I am cognizant that in white male dominated spaces, I am at an unfair disadvantage. Truly, the PhD allows me entry and a voice into spaces that were previously out of reach for me.
Every time I am approached by young women of color asking me if a PhD is right for them, I ask the following series of questions:
- What is your end goal? Will a PhD empower you to reach it faster and more effectively?
- Do you have the time and money? Are there funding opportunities available in your field?
- Will this degree open doors that would otherwise be shut for you?
If the answer to these questions is a yes, I always encourage young women of color to pursue a Ph.D. Looking at the growth my organization has experienced in impact, evaluation, and partnership opportunities, I can say that my journey was worth every sleepless night I endured.