Interrupted research, inaccessible offices, cancelled conferences and commencements—the pandemic has disrupted countless aspects of traditional academic life. In some cases, however, such disruptions can also spur innovations that yield unexpected benefits. For example, recent PhD recipients Casta Guillaume (Combined Program in Education and Psychology) and Christina Morton (Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education) found that the shift of their dissertation defenses online ultimately allowed the defenses to become more connected and inclusive experiences.

Guillaume, whose dissertation committee was chaired by Professor of Psychology, Jacquie Mattis, initially felt disappointed about the news that her defense would be virtual. “It was a bit jarring at first,” Guillaume explains. “I defended March 27, so it was earlier on when things were still trickling in. I was really let down at first that my parents wouldn’t be here in person. I really wanted to celebrate their hard work, both in Haiti and the United States, to get me to this point.”

Morton—who also worked with Jacquie Mattis and also defended in March—had similar feelings. “I had this vision of a room full of all the people I love being there at the same time,” she recalls. “I imagined just being there in person, looking them in the eyes, looking at my mother while I’m talking about my research.” Morton was at first disheartened that her long-imagined vision for such a crucial moment was no longer achievable.

After a brief adjustment period, however, both Guillaume and Morton began to see some of the ways that holding their defenses online could allow them to create more open, accessible spaces for learning and healing. In the end, the online format allowed them to connect more deeply with more people than they had previously imagined possible.

Guillaume explains: “It ended up being the way it should have been. I did have people who were supposed to come from out of town: family from Montreal, family from Miami, my dad was supposed to come from Haiti—people from all over the place. But I was able to have a lot more people on the call, like different mentees and family members who would not have been able to travel, and there was something really beautiful about having everyone connected at such a chaotic moment. It was also really cool because my mom was still able to engage with all of the people who supported me in the same ways that she would have in person. She was able to tell people how much she appreciated the support. And in the middle of my speech, she was chiming in and thanking my advisors for being there and saying how often she’s heard their names and how much she owes them—all of that stuff!”

For Morton, who at one point had more than 117 people on her call, the experience was one of profound connection, solidarity, and love between family, colleagues, and friends. “It gave me the chance to extend the invitation to folks who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make it,” she explains. “I sent an email blast out. I invited my dissertation participants. I invited old mentors and friends. But then people started forwarding it to other folks who they thought I would have invited. Before I knew it, it had grown legs and taken off. It was crazy! By the end, I had family from Alabama who were watching. I had mentors from North Carolina who were watching. I had friends and classmates. People I had met over the entire course of my academic trajectory were on that call.”  

Morton—who was nine months pregnant at the time—also gained another unexpected benefit from her defense call: the doula who would later assist in the birth of her child. “Someone I had known since I was 18 years old heard me mention that I was pregnant and said, ‘Hey, I’m a doula! Do you need any help with your breathing or anything?’” Morton laughs. “And I did need that! Here I was, super pregnant during the pandemic. I couldn’t go to any of my classes or anything in person. Typically, my friend would never have been able to come to the defense because it happened during the workday, but she was home at the time and able to attend. And she did act as my doula! It was great!”

Both Guillaume and Morton also found the experiences particularly powerful because of the resonances they noticed between their research topics and the defense calls themselves.

Guillaume explains that her dissertation, titled The Influence of Family on Justice-Oriented Young Women of Colors’ Understandings of Oppression and Imaginings of Liberation, examines the ways that “family as an everyday context influences the approach that young women of color take to understanding social justice and injustice.” She continues, “One of the findings of my work is that for these young women, family was not just their nuclear family. My work also focuses on the role of extended family, friends, and the role of shared experiences. On the dissertation call, I was able have family I built along the way in the form of other students in my cohort, friends from kindergarten, and students who were ahead of me and served as mentors for me. I was even able to have some of my mentees who I worked with while they were in elementary school—and who are now preparing to go into doctoral studies themselves. It was a really powerful moment and just a beautiful parallel with the types of communities I want to uplift through my work.”

For Morton, a particularly moving aspect of the experience was that the online format allowed several research participants and other people she has worked with throughout her career to attend. Morton, whose dissertation is titled Water from the Rock: The Role of Spirituality in the Lives of Black Women in Engineering Doctoral Programs, originally received an undergraduate degree in engineering before shifting her attention to higher education. Since then, she has dedicated her research to understanding and improving the experiences of students of color in STEM programs. Describing her overarching research aims, she explains:  “My research focuses on students of color who are finding ways to beat insurmountable odds and succeed in their programs. These are students who are taking care of families, taking care of their own children, taking care of ailing parents—all while trying to become a nurse, a doctor, a physician’s assistant, or an engineer.” Referring specifically to the women who took part her in dissertation study, Morton shared, “I felt a responsibility to honor their stories, to honor their time, their energy, and the love they poured into our conversations. I wanted to do their stories justice, to make them proud, to uplift the resources that they possess and the ways that they keep pressing against all odds. If my defense had not shown that, I would have been disappointed and worried that they would be disappointed. But they weren’t. They sent me these private messages afterward that were so kind and so beautiful, and that was really my stamp. That was the validation I was looking for, and it just made me so happy.”