Erin Stehle: The right time. The right place.
Doctoral student finds “a perfect fit” at SOE
Two years after earning her master’s degree in speech-language pathology, Erin Stehle was working as a speech therapist at a Title I elementary school in Hopewell, Va. She loved her job, and she was inspired every day by the teachers and students at the school.
She had a heavy caseload – 60-70 students – which required her to see them in groups of five or six at a time. Some of them came from difficult home environments; some came to school hungry. It was difficult to give them individualized attention, and behavior management soon became a challenge.
Stehle had considered pursuing a doctoral degree, but she knew that if she committed to it full-time, she would have to leave behind her career. At the same time, she knew that she needed to learn more about how to work with children from a variety of backgrounds, and how to implement appropriate behavior management strategies – especially if she was going to make a greater impact on those children’s lives.
“I needed a different perspective,” she explained. “I had already seen things through the lens of a speech therapist, but I needed to learn more about the education system as a whole, and special education in particular, so I could see things through that lens.”
She knew that if she pursued a doctoral degree, she wasn’t going to leave Richmond. After all, both her and her fiancé’s families lived in town. For her, there was one choice.
“If it was my time to go back to school, then the VCU School of Education was going to be the place,” she said. She didn’t apply anywhere else.
“If it was my time to go back to school, then the VCU School of Education was going to be the place.”
When she interviewed with Dr. Jason Chow, associate professor in counseling and special education, for admission into the doctoral program, she learned that he had earned his doctorate from Vanderbilt University, one of the premier programs in the country in speech-language pathology. “I wanted to bridge that speech-language world that I had come from, with the world of special education. It was a perfect fit for me,” she said.
Stehle was accepted into the school’s doctoral program in education, with a concentration in special education and disability leadership. She soon began working on speech-language projects in Chow’s VCU Cognition and Learning Lab, which included working with the VCU Child Development Center.
She finished the first year of her program this past spring. Even though she left behind her career in speech therapy, she has no regrets.
“It was a big decision, so I was understandably a little nervous at first, but I love the program here at VCU. I also love my professors and colleagues,” she said.
Stehle says that learning has been very different in her doctoral program than it was in her undergraduate and master’s programs. “It’s not about memorization anymore. It’s about gaining a deeper understanding of issues in education, and much of that comes from discussions with my professors and other students in my cohort,” she said.
“I feel that I’ve learned more this past year than I have in my entire undergraduate and master’s programs combined.”