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Sarah Dugger to make history on Friday as APSU’s first doctoral graduate

Dr. Dugger
Dr. Sarah Dugger

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – The title in front of her name sometimes causes her to hesitate – Dr. Sarah Dugger.

“A lot of my teacher friends will joke and call me Dr. Dugger,” she said.

Over the next few months, others might also hesitate when she tells them where she earned her doctorate – Austin Peay State University. For the last 94 years, the University has never awarded anything higher than an Education Specialist graduate degree, but that will change at 4 p.m. on Friday, May 7. That evening, Dugger – let’s say it again, “Dr. Sarah Dugger” – will make history by becoming the first person to earn a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in educational leadership degree at the University. 

“It’s very humbling,” she said. “That part really didn’t hit me until I finished defending my dissertation and Dr. (John) McConnell said, ‘You’re the first doctorate degree awarded at Austin Peay.’ For the University, I think it’s really cool.”

“This is a significant milestone in the history and development of the Eriksson College of Education,” Dr. Prentice Chandler, dean of the Eriksson College of Education, said. “Since Austin Peay started as a teacher training institution over 90 years ago, it’s fitting that the first doctoral program and first doctoral graduate is in the College of Education. We are proud of Dr. Dugger’s accomplishment and look forward to how this degree will change the trajectory of our college. We are just getting started.”

Educational roots

On April 25, 1927, Tennessee Governor Austin Peay signed a bill creating a normal school on the old Southwestern Presbyterian University campus in Clarksville. This new school, named after the Governor who died a few months later, was founded for training rural teachers in this area.

Over the next nine decades, as the thriving school eventually became a full University, the demand for a degree in educational leadership among the area’s K-12 professionals also grew. The faculty and staff within Austin Peay’s Eriksson College of Education spent a decade developing the program, and in April 2018, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) – the region’s higher education accrediting body – approved the new degree program.

The agency also reclassified Austin Peay as a Level V institution, opening the door for future doctoral degrees. In the final months of the approval process, Dr. Gary Stewart, APSU professor of education, began recruiting students for the new degree – he wanted to ensure they enrolled only the top candidates. One of the people he approached was Sarah Dugger.

Dr. Dugger

In 1986, decades before she was Dr. Dugger, she was a recent college graduate beginning her career as a public school teacher. She enjoyed teaching but she left the field to become a stay-at-home mom for her six children. 

“Fast forward to 2012. I had been a stay-at-home mom for quite a few years,” she said. “My husband had a traumatic brain injury and was unable to work. It was a fast turn of events that had me go back into teaching.”

She took a job at Cheatham County High School to help support the family. Her oldest son, a communication graduate student at Austin Peay, told her about a Master of Education in Reading degree at his University. But Dugger hesitated, unsure if she wanted to become a student again.

Her son, who worked in APSU’s College of Graduate Studies, took the initiative for her.

“The next thing I knew, he said, ‘You need to get your transcripts and send them to the College of Graduate Studies,’” she said. “He filled out the application for me and said, ‘By the way, you’re taking the MAT (Miller Analogies Test) tomorrow at 8 a.m. at Cumberland University.’ Four days later, my classes started.”

Dugger quickly realized that she loved being a student again, so she subsequently enrolled in Austin Peay’s Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) program in curriculum instruction and instructional technology. Within two years, she earned two graduate degrees from the University.

As she was finishing up her Ed.S., Stewart and McConnell kept telling her about a new doctoral degree coming to Austin Peay.

“They recruited heavily, I’ll put it that way,” she said.

The program

Dugger, along with 19 other educators and working professionals, enrolled in the Eriksson College of Education, forming the doctoral degree’s inaugural cohort. Classes began in Fall 2018, and over the next three years, students met on Monday nights on campus and over Zoom. The community encouraged each other to continue, even when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their program.

“It’s been a great program,” Dugger said. “A lot of really practical course work, things I’ve been able to implement over the last three years. Great professors.”

Dugger set herself the goal of finishing the degree in three years, so when she began working on her dissertation last fall, she made her own rigid research and writing deadlines. Another goal – no procrastinating.

On March 26, she successfully defended her dissertation, “The impact of COVID-19 on Risk of Teacher Retention in the United States.” All that’s left for her to officially become “Dr. Dugger,” is to cross the stage inside APSU’s Dunn Center on Friday.

 “I never thought I would even pass statistics, but I aced it,” she said.

She also became the first student to receive three of the Eriksson College of Education’s top awards – the Outstanding Dissertation Award, the CJH Research Award and the Fred Bunger Memorial Award.  

For information APSU’s Doctor of Education degree, visit https://www.apsu.edu/education/programs-of-study/edd.php.

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