Almost a PhD…Almost: The Last Mile of the Way

In Higher Education, Mentorship, PhD, Self-help, Vanderbilt on March 6, 2011 at 6:47 pm

I will rest at the close of the day,

And I know there are joys that await me,

When I’ve gone the last mile of the way.

Doctoral Cap

These words are of a popular refrain I’ve heard over and over as a child sitting in my grandmother’s Baptist church. More often than not, it was sung at a funeral. The remaining times I heard them were either as a member of a marching funeral cortege or as an on looker to one. It was a somber song, whose words, despite their hopeful undertones, were sung to mourn the loss of someone.

Although, I draw on the song’s hopefulness as I near the end of the dissertation process, I, in a way, also mourn the past. There is a sense of dread that creeps into the even the happiest moments of our lives as we move from the known to the unknown. It is the feeling you have on the first day at a new school, which despite however old you get, you experience when on the precipice of great transitions in life. This is the feeling, I think…I’m feeling.

There have been so many people on this journey who have helped in word, thought and deed. Many of you are reading this note—and I want to thank you. Few people can imagine the emotional and psychological tests associated with earning a Ph.D.—it is a consistent battle over self-doubt, social isolation and academic hazing. It requires above and beyond intelligence, discipline, thick skin, perseverance and discipline.

Did I mention discipline?

Even so, it is a feat that is rarely if ever accomplished without the love and support of others who push, pull, and prod us until we’ve “walked the last mile of the way.”


This is partially why I’m taking this moment to talk about three black men. One, because brothers often get a bad rap for being emotionally unavailable to sisters, especially upwardly mobile sisters. Two, because these three brothers did not expect any praise of any kind. And three, because these three brothers have kept me on course in the last few weeks when despair threatened to derail me from this goal—graduating on May 13, 2011.

In the first instance, I received a call from the Bahamas. It was an old friend on the line. He called to inquire about when I’d be coming home for Christmas. Disappointed to learn that I wasn’t, he asked about my progress. I admitted to being overwhelmed but committed to pushing ahead anyway. His talks always bring me to quiet tears. This time was no different. I struggled to catalogue every single thing he said in my heart as he spoke to my spirit. I also tried unsuccessfully to do the same thing in my mind. I did however, manage to remember this “You have been wired for the challenges and obstacles you face, God knew you were an over-comer before you were even conceived. Ain’t nothing to hard for you and ain’t nothing too good for you. You are are child of God.” It was a word I needed then and still need now. I thank him for those words and draw on them often.

- Winston Churchill

Second, one day, a week or more ago I was a pitiful sight. Seriously people, I was mad at the world. When you seem to have it altogether people come to expect it. They call on you for counsel on days when you don’t have much left to give. You love you’al, but God! Some days you think to yourself, where is my “me”? Where is someone who is willing to listen to my problems, offer me counsel and drive away my fears? Self indulgent, I know, but honest nevertheless. It is honest in a way that I rarely if ever am. I reached out to a friend, laying it all on the line. I was mad at anyone and at everyone, including myself. I don’t know what I expected of a 1:00 am Facebook message. But I was floored, completely and utterly by his response. To paraphrase, he said that all the folks I was moaning and groaning about loved and appreciated me.

What a novel idea!

He continued “there are others that believe in you – your ability to overcome and will support any effort to move forward.” I think he may be on to something…

Random Dude Modeling Vandy PhD Regalia

Third and finally, while chatting in the parking lot the other day, I ran across a colleague who like me taught history, but unlike me, had already successfully navigated the waters leading to the Ph.D. Similarly we talked about my progress; a process he knew well and sympathized with immediately. He began to tell me about the experience that led him to commit to earning the Ph.D. It was a fleeting encounter with a passerby—a young black woman, dressed her doctoral academic regalia which he described as a most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

Please don’t tell his wife!

She commanded the respect of all who saw her, but none anymore than him—because he knew what it took for her to earn it. He decided that day to pursue the Ph.D. He went on to say that I had no clue how many coeds already looked at me each and every day the same way. He said I was the embodiment of what I was repeatedly telling these kids they could be.

I was, of course, awed by it all. My dissertation topic, is in essence, a moving tribute to people who walked these hallowed grounds, battling prejudices and obstacles whose fullness, thanks to them, I will never know. They battled against greater odds to achieve the very single thing I’m battling to claim as my own.

It’s a journey I’m committed to… “I will rest at the close of the day. And I know there are joys that await me; when I’ve gone the last mile of the way.” When I walk across that stage on May 13, 2011, I’ll take a part of each of you with me!

Enough procrastination. Let me get back to work now!
  1. Dear Chief:

    We’ve known each other since our days at Fisk years ago, and I must say, Crystal, I’ve always known you’d achieve great things. But even I couldn’t imagine the amazing heights to which you’d one day soar And to know that this is just the beginning of what is sure to be a long and illustrious career of brilliant scholarship and service, my heart leaps with joy for you… We, those who’ve known you through the years and who share in celebrating your recent accomplishments, are continuously inspired both your tremendous dedication to serious, insightful scholarship, and, most of all, by your enormously generous heart for service. You possess both the wisdom and brilliance of a seasoned scholar and the grace and humility of a noble servant – the rare embodiment of the poignant words of the famed English writer & Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling in his timeless poem “If”: You have mastered the ability to “talk with crowds and keep your virtue… [You] walk with kings, [but never] lose the common touch…” You are a true talent, but, rarer still, an honored and a trusted friend. March on, my sister. March on… #HailToDa’Chief

    • Dearest Tim,
      You know I love you right? During those spring days on the yard at Fisk, I could have hardly imagined being where I am today. Lord knows, there are many days when I hardly know where I am and for what purpose I am here. But we are called to walk by faith and not by sight, and to evermore climb Jacob’s ladder. That’s what I call myself doing; and I haven’t do so alone–thanks to friends like you. As always, you are appreciated *in my best Tupac rendition voice*

      Out here on HIS word,

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