Higher education cohort draws strength, support from one other as members welcome new children

When members of a University of Mississippi School of Education doctoral cohort kept getting pregnant, the running joke was there had to be something in the snacks they ate when they met each month.

Someone also blamed voodoo, or other supernatural forces, being at work in Guyton Hall, home of the School of Education.

Since this Doctor of Education in higher education cohort entered school together in August 2016, five women in the group have given birth, while two men in the class have become fathers for a total of seven new babies. With 25 students in the cohort, the number means more than 25 percent have become parents.

Shawnboda Mead, UM assistant vice chancellor for diversity, gave birth to a son, Nolan, who is baby No. 6 in the cohort, Oct. 3, 2018. Nolan, the couple's second child, along with 7-year-old Christian, was born after she and her husband, Neal Mead, previously had suffered two miscarriages. Though she was nervous about going through pregnancy again, she drew strength from the other parents in the group, and inspiration from them when she saw them manage their classes, work and family life.

"Thankfully, our faculty have been supportive, and the timing for everyone has just seemed to work out," Mead said. "And, we were thankful to be blessed with this baby – he's our rainbow baby. The 'perfect time' never crossed my mind. I just knew that I'd find a way to make it work."

She's found lots of things to talk about within the group, she said.

"We have all certainly supported one another throughout the process, often using breaks during class to share stories about the lack of sleep, breastfeeding and everything in between!" Mead said.

Rachael Durham and her husband, Matt, welcomed a son, Logan Allen Durham, on March 25. He is the seventh baby of the cohort, and the second of the Durhams, who also have Grady, a 4-year-old.

Rachael Durham, assistant director of the UM First Year Experience program, said she has bonded with her fellow students and new parents on so many levels.

"It became a fun, bonding experience for all, not just those having children," Durham said. "Our cohort also has a GroupMe so keeping up with one another and encouraging one another more than just at our monthly gatherings has been an amazing experience."

Having a baby while taking classes, working full time, and still being a wife, mother and all of her other titles definitely has been difficult to juggle, she said. She credits her husband and the rest of her support system in the cohort for getting her through it.

"I've given up a few extra hours of sleep to finish a paper," Durham said. "I've left the laundry unfolded for a weekend while I drive to Jackson for class. I really had to let the little things go and focus on my main goal of getting this degree."

The Durhams had wanted to grow their family. In one of the classes, Rachael and friend Megan Miller, who is also in the cohort, started discussing children.

"We made a map of classes and talked pros and cons, encouraging one another that it could still be done," Rachael Durham said. "Megan ended up having her son March 2018 and I had mine March 2019."

Miller, a career planning specialist in the School of Engineering, found out she was having a baby at the beginning of her second year in the program. She jokes that there's something supernatural at work in Guyton Hall, perhaps some "baby juju."

As the mother of the third baby in the group, a boy named Thomas, Miller has found comfort in the cohort, despite having all the common anxieties that first-time parents have about work and life. She's behind some of her classmates, but she said she should be finished with her doctorate by August.

"I think what people don't know is that often they don't know what they need to know until it is time to know it," Miller said with a grin. "I didn't know what I was getting myself into working full time and having a baby and trying to finish a degree.

"It has definitely made me hone my organizational skills more than they were already honed. I'm much more organized now."

She said she'd advise nervous parents to relax a little and understand they aren't taking on anything that hasn't been done before.

"You just do it," Miller said. "People have been doing it for thousands of years. You'll figure it out. It's fine. Other people have done it and kept their baby alive, and kept the house from burning down. We just figured it out."

She said she's also gotten some lessons about managing her time, and other's expectations of what she can handle at once, even though that didn't come easily.

"I learned how to say 'no', which is not in my DNA," Miller said. "I have also learned how to take things off of my plate, or make things less of a priority.

"I have to make sure things I am devoting my time to are things I really care about and that I will care about for hopefully longer than just during this season of my life."

Natcha Knight-Evans, UM assistant registrar, gave birth to Charleigh-Rose, the second baby in the cohort, on Jan. 31, 2018. She and husband Chad have five children and one grandchild, and are doing well.

She has found much support and comfort in the group. She drew support from her husband, children, family and classmates, but also friends, colleagues and her parents, who are retired and relocated to the area to help her during the process.

"They reassured me that I could continue in my studies," Knight-Evans said. "Our pregnancies were during different times throughout the program; I think we will have a special bond because we had Ed.D. babies."

Kathryn Cox, and academic counselor at Holmes Community College in Grenada, and her husband, Michael Cox, welcomed their second child, Harper, in May 2018 while Kathryn Cox was working on her doctorate. They have a 5-year-old son named Camden.

Though she wasn't telling anyone she was with child, Cox said her classmates began to notice one day that she might have gotten into the snacks.

"With the females in the class, you could just see them grow," Cox said. "I hadn't told anybody I was pregnant, but I came in there and somebody said, 'Oh my, you've got something in there.' There is so much excitement that grows around it.

"It was exciting for everybody. We all would want to see pictures as we watched our kids go through their first year or so."

Cox, who was hoping to have another child with her husband, said she took some solace in knowing that she'd be carrying a baby who wouldn't be born until after one of her more dreaded classes was complete. Her daughter is the fourth baby born to the cohort.

"The Lord's timing was not our timing," Cox said. "We had been trying to have a baby for a while. We were excited, but my first thought was, 'Oh my goodness, I'm about to go into stats classes. '

"I was going to have her May. I was thinking at least it will get me through stats. I am not a math person and that class was something I feared."

Clate Holleman, and his wife, Virginia, gave birth to their son, John Wright Holleman, who was the first of the cohort babies on Oct. 20, 2017. Clate Holleman, who is working on his doctorate with the others while working as a financial aid administrator at Belhaven University, credits his wife for being strong during the process.

"She has been great and is an inspiration to me," Holleman said. "She is a working medical professional so she was back at work soon after her maternity leave ended, and I would argue she is probably busier than I am most days."

Like the others, he said fatherhood during a doctorate has taught him a lot about balancing work and life. He sees the challenging parts of being a sort of a blessing in disguise.

He said it's important to not get too bogged down in the moment when things aren't going well. The secret is to know that even the challenging aspects early – the lack of sleep, inconsolable crying when the baby is sick, riding in car seat or being tired –all will pass much more quickly than you think.

"That's not to say you'll miss it, but just that as they grow the challenges change and are more manageable, in my opinion, since the child can communicate and understand things more clearly," Holleman said.

Fellow dad Martin Fisher, UM associate director of admissions, is also a member of the cohort. He became a father last July, when his son, Jackson, was born to him and wife Stephanie. Jackson is the fifth baby in the cohort.

Fisher had always wanted to be a father and was ecstatic when he found out the news. He's met the challenge of balancing work, family and education mainly through learning to utilize all his time wisely.

"It's been a challenge for sure," Fisher said. "I think oftentimes people talk about work-life balance, but really it's been more of a work-life blend, figuring out what works, whether that's making sure I am home for bedtime but then working after he goes to bed, or just learning how to take advantage of small pockets of time, whether it is lunch breaks or Sunday afternoons.

Stephanie Fisher is pursuing a master's degree in English education while Martin Fisher works toward his doctorate. They work well together and support each other's dreams, he said. Fisher calls her his biggest fan, and he is also hers.

He believes cultivating a network of boosters is crucial to accomplishing something that is challenging.

"It's doable," Fisher said. "It's just about surrounding yourself with people who support you and understand the things that you are going through. Whether that is family or friends, having that support system is really important.

"I haven't done this alone. I have had a team of people to support me all the way through this."

Story by Michael Newsom/University Marketing & Communications

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