Member of UHCL's largest doctoral cohort reflects on journey: Profs 'saw something in me'
Rachel Alex did not set out to become a teacher. It’s a profession and a calling that she says chose her rather than the other way around. Now, as she received her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from University of Houston-Clear Lake on May 13, Alex reflected on her journey as well as her experience as part of the College of Education’s largest-ever cohort of doctoral students to graduate.
“I am originally from Los Angeles, but I moved to a small town in Texas,” she said. “There was not much there for me with two small children, but I wanted to work, so I substituted in the school.”
That’s when Alex began falling in love with the possibilities that existed each day with the students in her classroom. “It wasn’t just about what I could give them,” she said. “It was about what they gave me. To have that feeling that I could see something in them, and they needed me, too. I found myself in a new space and it felt natural, so I decided to be a teacher. I went back and completed my education degree.”
After that, she never looked back. “I have never regretted that decision,” she said. “This is my life. It chose me. I didn’t know this was what I was going to do.”
She began teaching middle school math in Dayton Independent School District in 1999. “I was on maternity leave and was not even certified yet, but I got a call and was asked if I could take a class for the remainder of the year,” she said. “I got emergency certified and took the class.”
She remembered a principal with whom she had a difficult relationship. “I found out he liked me because I challenged him,” she said. “He was the one who told me to take the next step in leadership in my career, so in 2003, I completed my master’s with principal’s certification. I wasn’t expecting that from him. This was a man I did not respect, but he saw something in me.”
Until then, she had been content in the classroom, but that principal was the catalyst for her to get her master’s and started her trajectory into leadership.
For the last six years, Alex has been a senior leadership specialist at the Region 4 Education Service Center. It is one of 20 regional education service centers designated by the Texas Education Agency to assist public school and charter districts in improving student performance. “Everything that’s about team building, coaching new and seasoned administrators, evaluation, and anything that supports leadership growth on campus and in districts, that’s what I do,” she explained.
Region 4 covers school districts from Tomball to Hardin, and from Galveston to Sweeney and everything in between.
With achieving a doctorate always in mind, Alex had been interacting with professors from UHCL who came to the service center to become certified in different areas. “I happened to have met Dr. Tom Cothern, a professor in the College of Education at UHCL who has since retired,” she said. “We had gotten to know each other, and he said I would be an excellent candidate for a doctoral program.”
And looking back, Alex said this was one of many things along the way that happened because someone saw something in her.
“He put me in touch with (Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Doctoral Program Director) Antonio Corrales,” she said. “Dr. Cothern told me that UHCL had a great doctoral program. I spoke with Dr. Corrales and the rest is history.”
She started in the 2020 cohort, and graduated with 14 others—the largest number of doctoral candidates to graduate from the College of Education. Many of them started and finished together. Her cohort was successful because it met often, wrote goals, held each other accountable, and became each other’s support system.
“Your family and friends can support you, but no one outside of the cohort understands how much work it takes,” she said. “To have a group like that come together is one of the most powerful things that can happen. My cohort was incredible.”
She began her coursework with certain expectations. “But what I expected was not what I got,” she said. “I thought I’d get a doctorate. But what I also got was a close connection with brilliant colleagues and professors. Every one of them believed in their students. I didn’t know I would love them as much as I loved the classes.”
She also found that writing a dissertation is nothing like writing anything else.
“We go into our program knowing that our courses will be challenging, but we’ve completed courses before. We knew we could write essays and other kinds of papers because we’ve always done those in the past,” she explained. “But when I accepted that I did not know anything about how to write a dissertation, that’s when it started working. You have to humble yourself to the process. A dissertation is a whole other level of writing and research, and until you’ve done one, you don’t know. You have to take your pride out of the equation.”
At age 52, Alex learned one more thing: “I’m not too old to learn,” she declared. “I didn’t need a doctorate to do my job better. But it adds credibility and influences the next steps in my life. I have added to the body of literature. My opinion has research behind it. You can’t say you’re an expert without it; otherwise you’ve just written an essay. An essay is not a doctorate.”
Going forward, Alex hopes to launch a consulting business as a leadership coach, and will return to UHCL as an adjunct professor this summer. “I want to be part of this experience for others,” she said. “I have too much to offer. UHCL has been so good to me. I want to give back.”