Shared Experiences Created a Good-Humored and Soulful Legacy at UGA
RACHELLE D. WASHINGTON (PhD ’06) translated playful phrases and camaraderie into powerful ideas for fellow doctoral students at UGA. Washington graduated last May, having integrated graduate experiences for African-American women into both her dissertation research and UGA doctoral journey. She and other female African American graduate students created a support system they are growing and extending to other campuses. Current and emerging scholars are following suit, taking novel social initiatives to enrich their graduate school experiences. This is their story.
Rachelle D. Washington was first inspired to develop a support system in the fall of 2003, as an adult student arriving at a traditionally white university. “
So many of us had been in classes [elsewhere] and had not seen another woman of color—period,” says Washington, “and to come to a [UGA] classroom and see so many faces and colors like our own, we realized we are here. We were able to come together as a circular community. From that place we started having gatherings.” It began simply, she says by assembling “a combination of sisters and classmates” whose ages ranged from late 20s to early 60s.
As members completed their doctoral degrees, Washington describes how a new organization called “SistahDoctahs” was born in 2004. Today, 50 active graduate students comprise SistahMates, and 10 members with earned doctorates form SistahDoctahs. The names denote close-knit UGA alumnae groups, gaining traction as both membership numbers and purpose swell. The co-joined memberships recently announced scholarship plans in addition to working toward formalizing the organization.
A thrust of SistahMates is called SWEET, for Sistahs Weaving Excellent Educational Tapestries. It describes a writing group initiative within SistahMates named by Maria Winfield (PhD ’07). Winfield is a doctoral candidate in the department of language and literacy education. “
Another SistahDoctah on her way!” says Washington.
“Every time one of us graduates, we send out something through our list serve. There is excitement and energy,” says Washington. Theirs is an interactive network of social support, buttressing fellow members through difficulties, sharing resources and professional tips.
“The support group is one aspect but SistahMates is two-fold,” explains Letha Mosley (PhD ’05). “We have a group for black women graduate students going towards their doctorates, and then a core group that are now degreed ‘sister doctors.’ As SistahDoctahs within diverse venues we have the capacity to be change agents and leaders in our fields.”
Members met February 23–25 for a strategizing retreat in Clemson, South Carolina. Washington is an assistant professor at Clemson University, nurturing relationships and mentoring as part of her professional work in the Eugene T. Moore School of Education. She cultivates her brainchild and receives support from Clemson to grow the two organizations.
“Much of the university support stems from a nationwide call to recruit and retain diverse graduate students and faculty as well as to foster collaborative relationships with other institutions,” she explains.
A SWEET UNDERLYING PREMISE
The premise of the membership is simple; shared experiences and encouragement divide the stresses of often lonely academic work.
“We didn’t have an exact model for what we wanted to design” adds SWEET supporter Dionne Rosser- Mims (PhD, ’05). “We decided to make it for ourselves and others to share.” Their model, Rosser-Mims explains, arose from collective experiences and insights.
Washington gives examples. On the morning of her oral examinations a SistahMate sent an inspiring piece of Scripture. When familial loss occurred—(a lot of us lost our fathers along the way she says)— Washington sent notes to her supportive email list. “The SistahMates’ responses sustained many during these times,” she recalls.
Themes of grief, loss, burn out, financial woe, wellness, and family stress filled the e-mails that flew among the women. Dinners and nights developed them into a real community.
“We had a ‘Bite at Night’. We had a chance to talk about our academic trek as well as provide social support. Being so few there, we offered each other many layers of support,” Washington says. Joan Burke (PhD ’02) adds, “Health and wellness issues are a great concern for us as black women and even more so when we balance these issues against the isolation.”
Washington used the group experience in her scholarly work. “A part of my dissertation focused on ways agency influences our educational journey as black women prior to attending a traditionally white research institution,” she explains. She illustrated the process with personal journal entries and narratives. “I wrote a lot about black women’s schooling experiences for my dissertation.”
There were unexpected developments as the group sought deeper expression. Members sought ways to share human resources and formalize their organization. Ernise Singleton (PhD ’06) declares, “It is critical to extend this effort of sisterhood working collaboratively.”
Members give practical support. They invite each other to observe and give classroom presentations based upon respective disciplines, says Rosser-Mims. Recently, Washington asked Winfield to teach a poetry segment to Clemson undergraduates. Member Jaret Walton (PhD ’07) designed their organizational logo. Members also help one another with job searches. “It’s an incredible way to be in this time and space,” Washington marvels. “
I went to a couple of SistahDoctahs and asked, ‘What do you think about putting some money together?’ Although we now have our various doctorates—hence, limited resources—we wanted to somehow contribute to a legacy at UGA; we felt strongly that we would give what we could to jump start the development of a scholarship.”
A series of conference calls moved things forward. The women devised a working plan for a fellowship or scholarship and Mims met with the Graduate School’s dean, Maureen Grasso, before making their plan official. Legacy plans include a scholarship they hope to award in fall 2007.
Although Washington paid for nearly every dime of her own education, she is enthusiastic about the membership developing a scholarship for others. “Financial need ought not to be a reason someone cannot finish doctoral studies,” she says. “It’s such an unselfish act,” Rosser-Mims says about the scholarship and other plans. “We can hardly wait to share this with the SistahMates at UGA!”
"Did you ever think our group would evolve into such a regal assembly of proactive 'sistahs' [sic]? ask Meca Williams (PhD '06).
Washington answers, resoundingly, "Yes! We're happy we've come this far. So happy we've come together for this journey."