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COEHS doctoral program celebrates 20 years

Mahatma Gandhi would feel right at home at the University of North Florida.

The world’s preeminent humanitarian was born in India, thousands of miles away from Jacksonville and the UNF campus and died decades before the college ever opened its doors.

But his spirit of service lives on here — through the statue dedicated to him in Peace Plaza near Founders Hall and through the campus organizations sharing his ideals of peace and acceptance.

That message of reverence is intrinsic to the mission of the College of Education and Human Services (COEHS). Gandhi’s words even serve as the inspiration for the college’s doctoral program in educational leadership: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Program Director and Leadership and Counseling Professor Dr. Kathe Kasten said when UNF’s first doctorate was created in 1990, each credit was assigned with Gandhi’s message in mind.

“We want our graduates to be agents of educational change in the community,” she said. “Look around at them all and you can tell.”

Each of the almost 160 doctoral graduates was recognized during a reception in late February for the program’s 20th anniversary.

COEHS Dean Larry Daniel said that each graduate has played a vital role in shaping the college’s — and UNF’s — identity. The program is evidence that the college has evolved greatly in the intervening years, he said. But some things never change. The professors knew the names of each student in the first cohort to graduate and the professors know the names of the first cohort in 2011 to graduate. “We want our students to know they matter to us as individuals and as future education professionals,” Daniel said. “One way to do that is with small class sizes and professors who care deeply about learning on all levels.”

Much of that comes from the leadership.

Kasten said she has worked diligently to maintain the smaller class sizes and continued focus on educational curiosity that the college’s doctoral program has supported since its inception. It’s an institutional mantra that has developed with time and experience, she said.

“I don’t know if we were trailblazers, but we were aware that our decisions would shape UNF’s vision for the future,” Kasten said. “We were the first of our kind on campus, and we were responsible for laying a lot of the groundwork for those who followed.”

The journey forward wasn’t easy. In the late ’90s, UNF’s Thomas G. Carpenter Library closed at 9 p.m., and education doctoral students were some of the only people on campus during the weekends. Now, the library is until the wee hours of the morning and education doctoral students have lots of company on the weekends.

“Out of our 160 grads, these are people who are some of the best exemplars we have of what advanced grads can do for a university and the community,” she said.

A large cross section of those exemplars — doctoral students from years past, freshly minted graduates and current candidates — mingled before the ceremony in the new COEHS Building.

Many of the older graduates had never stepped foot inside the pristine, glass-enclosed facility nestled on the north end of campus near the equally new Student Union building and Brooks College of Health’s addition, J. Brooks Brown Hall.

But the unfamiliar surroundings couldn’t stifle the flow of conversation. The memories immediately bubbled to the surface. Former classmates swapped stories of all the hours of in-class discussions and epic cram sessions in the library.

Kelley Ranch holds those memories close to her heart. She received her doctorate in 2006 after six years of night classes, grueling workdays and personal sacrifice.

She’s now the coordinator of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Jacksonville’s Ribault High School, and her workload is tremendous.

Ribault was only the third Duval County school to offer the intellectually rigorous and time-intensive accelerated education program. Stanton College Prep and Paxon School for Advanced Studies were the city’s two original IB programs.

But that’s where the similarities end. Stanton and Paxon are regional academic powerhouses with consistently stellar scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). Ribault has historically lagged behind other district schools and currently dangles from the precipice of potential closure. The school is on a list of four “intervene” schools — high schools the Duval County Public School Board has discussed converting into charter schools or shuttering completely if there aren’t noticeable signs of improvement.
Orchestrating an institutional turnaround while leading Ribault’s most intellectually stringent program of studies — it’s the greatest challenge Ranch has ever faced in her decades-long public school career.

She wouldn’t have it any other way.

She’s triumphed over seemingly insurmountable odds before as a single mother, full-time teacher and doctoral candidate.

“I’m not going to lie, getting my doctorate was a constant struggle,” Ranch said. “My son was 7 years old when I entered the UNF program, and I was still teaching. I was running from one place to the next. I had no time to myself. And when I did carve out a little time, I was studying."

Ranch remembers fondly the times she took her son to class so she wouldn’t miss a lecture. She said her classmates couldn’t miss her as she made the trek from the parking lot to class.

Carting her own books along with her son, James, his toys and a portable TV to keep him occupied, Ranch said she must have been quite the spectacle.

“I can only imagine what they thought at first,” she said. “’Who’s this woman bringing her entire life into the classroom?’ That’s what I would have thought if I saw myself. But they were amazing. They’d look after my son. Play with him. They were all so helpful every day I was there. I couldn’t have gotten through it without my family — my school family.”

Beyond the family-friendly environment, Ranch said her education was top-notch. The low student-to-faculty ratio, one of the hallmarks of a UNF education, was conducive to academic exploration and allowed her quality time with her professors whenever she needed a nudge in the right direction.

And the support she received from her professors has been the driving force behind her continued passion for public education.

Her professor, Dr. Warren Hodge, summed it up best, she said. He nicknamed her “The Matador” because of her fiery determination and drive to succeed. And she’ll never forget the advice he gave her shortly before graduating.

“He told me to ‘keep the cape on,’” Ranch said. “He was talking about his nickname for me at the time, but it makes even more sense now with the release of ‘Waiting for Superman’ [a documentary about the nation’s struggling public schools]. It’s even more important. I want to wear the cape. I want to be Superman for my kids.”

Maira Martelo is the latest UNF doctoral candidate to take up the mantle as an educational superhero in training. The Colombian native relocated to Jacksonville about five years ago and enrolled in UNF’s English Language Program (ELP).

She thought she was bilingual at first.

“That’s where I learned I wasn’t even close,” she said. “I hadn’t even scratched the surface.”

Martelo, who had worked as an educator and journalist in her native country before relocating to America, worked her way through the ELP and applied for UNF’s educational leadership program three years ago.

She said her parents were the driving force behind her doctoral pursuit. Neither had finished elementary school, and they could barely sign their own names. They worked hard to provide for their family but still barely scraped by.

“They always told me education was my way out,” Martelo said. “And I want to continue to spread their message.”

Her plan is to finish the program in the spring after defending her thesis, which is on the educational issues plaguing low-income Hispanic students. She said her own background has given her a unique insight into one of the state’s most at-risk and dropout-heavy demographics. She knows the struggles of learning a new language on the fly. That’s why she’s working as a mentor to some struggling Hispanic students in the hopes of putting them on a path toward graduation.

“It’s been shocking to learn just how far behind their contemporaries they are before they even start,” Martelo said. “Sometime their parents want to help but can’t because they don’t speak the language. They can’t even read to them and don’t know how to reach out for help. That’s where people need to help. I want to be one of those people.”

Martelo said she feels committed to helping those who used to be in her shoes. It’s why she wants to stay in Jacksonville to teach after she receives her degree. Her connection to her homeland and her commitment to the community necessitates it, she said.

And Jacksonville is the perfect place to enact the change Gandhi alluded to in his famous statement, she said.

“Information and education are the keys to bettering yourself,” she said. “My parents taught me that, but UNF was the place where I really learned what that meant.”