Virginia Palencia: "This is my degree – and my family's, too."

Q&A with SOE Ph.D. student

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Virginia Elizabeth Palencia

What drew you to the field of education?

I got my undergraduate degree in English literature and was working in journalism. I had just had a baby when my husband decided he was ready for a career change. That required a career change for me, too.

I grew up in a very large extended family, and I had always been good with kids, so I decided to get a Master of Teaching degree. It gave me a schedule I could manage while still being a parent. I ended up becoming a high school teacher, and I loved it.

What were you doing prior to applying to the VCU School of Education?

I was working as an adjunct professor in Newport News, and I wanted a change. I had a master’s in secondary education and teaching, but I had always wanted to get my Ph.D. I had worked in K-12 public education for eight years and in higher education for seven years, and I had seen things that bothered me. I hated not having a voice or the power to change them.

I researched several schools and applied to three, including VCU.

Why did you choose VCU SOE?

I was blown away by the way my family and I were treated. In one session when we toured the campus, my husband – who is more extroverted than I am – asked lots of questions. He finally prefaced one with, ‘I’m sorry to be asking so many questions ...’ to which the recruitment coordinator said, ‘Don’t be sorry, this is your degree, too.’

None of the other schools I was considering even acknowledged the family part of the equation. When you’re an applicant with a family, it’s a family decision and a family commitment. It’s not just my degree; it’s everybody’s degree down to my mom who watches our kids. That’s the day I decided I was going to VCU.

What were some of the highlights from your first semester?

One of my first classes was with Dr. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, and the root of our discussion was the very thing that had bothered me as a teacher. We talked about inequity in schools and why it exists. I felt like I had finally found a language for what I had seen for years; I just hadn’t had the words for it.

“I’m sure I would’ve had an excellent education at any of the other schools I applied to, but at VCU, every class that I walk into gives me something I need. I feel really fortunate.”

I’m sure I would’ve had an excellent education at any of the other schools I applied to, but at VCU, every class that I walk into gives me something I need. I feel really fortunate.

Describe your classmates: How are they contributing to your education?

My cohort is like family. I started my Ph.D. program thinking it was going to be cut throat and super competitive, which made me a little nervous. No one in my family had ever gotten a degree that high before. Fortunately, it’s been very much the opposite.

Our cohort had a few meetings before classes started, which was a great idea. One of the members in my cohort is from Nigeria. Her name is Olubowale Emiola Oyefuga. We connected right away. When we don’t know what to do, we figure it out together. It’s evolved to where we can be totally honest with each other when we’re struggling with a particular assignment.

What are your career plans after graduation?

My first choice would to be to teach, hopefully at the university level. My second choice would be to work in either policy or student affairs. My husband is retiring from police work next year, and he hopes to transition into a career in homeland security or emergency preparedness. Based on my experience at VCU, he’s looking into the graduate program here at the Wilder School.