Commencement a family affair: Sisters earn doctorates

April 23 2008

Earning doctorates from Indiana State University has turned into a family affair for sisters.

Augusta DeNeal of Gary, defended her dissertation and research into African-Americans and higher education at the end of March while her sister, Elonda Ervin of Terre Haute, watched and listened. Four days later, Ervin defended her dissertation while DeNeal and other family members looked on in anticipation of the second sister successfully completing her Ph.D. as well.

Both sessions ended the same: educational leadership, administration and foundations Professor Mary Howard-Hamilton introduced each woman as "doctor" as the sisters hugged and cheered for each other. DeNeal and Ervin plan to participate in ISU's graduation at 2 p.m. May 3 in Hulman Center.

"This is truly a rare occasion," Howard-Hamilton said. "Two sisters have Ph.D.s. For an African-American family, that is rare. I've been a professor for 17 years and I haven't had that opportunity in teaching."
It could get even rarer. DeNeal and Ervin's middle sister, Geraldine Ware-Roby of Gary, embarked upon her doctoral journey at Indiana State in 2007 and plans to defend her dissertation in 2009. When she does, all three of the sisters in their family will have earned doctorate degrees.

In DeNeal's research for her dissertation, "African-American Women Doctoral Education Experiences (Persistence)," she found about 5 percent of all doctoral degrees are conferred upon African-Americans. Of those degrees, most are awarded to African-American women.
Support, along with mentoring, plays a role in success, according to Howard-Hamilton. Other factors for African-Americans' success include financial aid, scholarships and time.

The women said they had each other and their other family members to encourage them on the journey, as well as faculty members at ISU to provide mentorship and support.

"We push each other. We support each other," said Ervin, who works in Indiana State's student activities office. "We have each other's back. We tell each other the truth."

"We were poor coming up in our family, but thank God we had our parents' love to be the people we needed to be," DeNeal said.

While they look to each other for help along life's pathways, behind them are their parents, who sought a new life with opportunities for their children and encouraged them to pursue their educations.

"Neither of our parents finished high school," DeNeal said. "They moved from Mississippi to Gary to get away from racism."

At the time, DeNeal was an infant, but her parents wanted a better life for what would be their eight children.
"She didn't know how to tell us to get careers," DeNeal said about their mother. "If she pushed anything, she pushed us to get an education."

"Dad was a strong tower," Ervin added. "He believed in education. They wanted you to go to the max."

As they grew, Ware-Roby said they were made to finish their homework every day. If they claimed to not have any, their mother told them to read a book.

"Dad would work three jobs to support us," Ware-Roby said. "He said the only way we were going to make it was to get an education."

That they did, although their father did not live to see his daughters reach the pinnacle in education as he died in 1990.

"He's dancing around heaven," Ware-Roby said after Ervin successfully defended her dissertation.

The sisters pushed each other to achieve that education, and each has turned to the education field for careers.
Ervin never intended to earn her master's degree, much less her doctorate.

"When I finished my bachelor's I said I would never go to school again," said Ervin, who is the youngest of the sisters. "Then she (DeNeal) and our middle sister (Ware-Roby) got to harassing me."

With an undergrad in criminology and a master's in communication, Ervin found that she enjoyed being in the classroom, teaching and interacting with the students.
"For me, it was the chance to help, advise and guide," she said.

DeNeal earned a bachelor's degree in education with an emphasis on supervision management. Her master's was in instructional design and curriculum for education.

"I love the effects of it all," she said about education. "I love what it does for the children that you teach, it doesn't matter if it's elementary, high school or college, with the learning that is involved. Then there are the changes you can make in people's lives."

DeNeal started the doctoral program first and was in the second cohort formed in Indiana State's then-fledgling doctoral program.

"I was in the right place at the right time," said DeNeal, who is the director of Educational Talent Search for Ivy Tech in Gary. "Our past chancellor, Darnell Cole, though I would be a good candidate. He suggested I try it out."

DeNeal was already familiar with Indiana State University as Ware-Roby started her undergrad degree and Ervin completed her undergrad degree at the university.

"Indiana State University was a fit for me," Ervin said. "I had a support system all along the way. My support system came to fruition when Dr. Howard-Hamilton became my chair. She had time for me. She gave me the dos and don'ts."

Ware-Roby chose to attend Indiana State for her doctorate in part because her sisters attended the university.

"They actually offered the type of program that I wanted. It's finishing something that I started," she said alluding to starting her bachelor's degree at ISU. Ware-Roby left the marketing field to get a second master's degree and began teaching special education.

DeNeal and Ervin praised different educational leadership, administration and foundations faculty and staff members who helped them along the way.

"Dr. (Kandace) Hinton (assistant professor of ELAF) tested and tried me analytically in all directions until she finally got it out of me," DeNeal said. "Dr. (Josh) Powers (ELAF director) is so caring and passionate about his work that it overflows and energizes us for the work."

Ervin presented research from her dissertation, "I don't want to let people down who are really counting on me: A Study of Black Men at a Predominantly White Institution," during the 12th annual Undergraduate and Graduate Research Showcase in early April.

"They have made quite a contribution to higher education," Howard-Hamilton said of DeNeal and Ervin's research. "Both wrote dissertations with long-lasting impacts for students of color and women of color."

Their findings could empower others too, she said.
"One of the benefits of doing research like this is the long-lasting impact," she said. "It's like a ripple in a pond."

Howard-Hamilton said she has encouraged the sisters to become faculty members at universities.

"We need more role models like them out there," she said.
Ervin and DeNeal have plans to continue working with students. Ervin plans to return to the classroom to teach - she has an undergrad in criminology and a master's degree in communications - but hopes to move into administration, eventually working her way to a provost position.

"This program was a perfect fit," she said of ISU's doctoral program. "It taught me how to be an administrator."

DeNeal said she plans to work with students staying in college and working on their degrees.

"We are losing a lot of students of color," she said.
She also wants to start a Christian school for boys in Gary. In whatever work she's doing, DeNeal knows that she will be a role model for others.

"The doctorate will give me credibility with my work, my community and my family," she said. "I will be able to give of my experience and motivation because somebody gave it to me."

Contact: Augusta DeNeal, Ivy Tech, director of Educational Talent Search, at 219-981-4825 or at 
Elonda Ervin, Indiana State University, Student Activities and Organizations program assistant, at 812-237-3827 or at 
Geraldine Ware-Roby, middle school special education teach in Gary, at 219-433-3915 or at 
Mary Howard-Hamilton, Indiana State University, professor of educational leadership, administration and foundations, at 812-237-2907 or at 

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, assistant director of media relations, Indiana State University, at 812-237-7972 or 


Cutline: Elonda Ervin hugs Kandace Hinton, ISU assistant professor of educational leadership, administration and foundations while her sisters Geraldine Ware-Roby and Augusta DeNeal offer their congratulations. ISU Photo/Marjorie Loomis


Cutline: Augusta DeNeal, left, reacts to Mary Howard-Hamilton, right, ISU professor of educational leadership, administration and foundations, calling her doctor at the completion of DeNeal dissertation defense. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem


Cutline: Sisters Augusta DeNeal, Geraldine Ware-Roby and Elonda Ervin. DeNeal and Ervin completed their doctoral degrees at ISU during the spring of 2008. Ware-Roby is working on her doctoral degree and plans to finish in 2009. ISU Photo/Marjorie Loomis


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Earning doctorates from Indiana State University has turned into a family affair for sisters.

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