IU heralds 1st doctorate in fledgling program

File photo.
File photo.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — It’s the first Ph.D. of its kind.

And when Maria Eliza Hamilton Abegunde receives her doctorate in African American and African diaspora studies from Indiana University Friday, she’ll be the first person to earn a degree that’s only been established since 2009.

The Ph.D. has been on the minds of faculty for decades, but work on the program really started moving in about 2005, said John McCluskey Jr., Abegunde’s adviser as well as a professor emeritus of the department and an adjunct professor in English.

“It meant growing the field.” he told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1oaj5gv ).

McCluskey said when academic departments are looking to grow, they look for someone with a Ph.D. in that field, so having a program meant the field would continue.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education approved the degree in 2008, and IU is one of only seven universities in the country to offer a doctoral degree related to African American studies.

With the right mix of faculty and students, McCluskey said he hopes the IU doctoral program continues to evolve and improve. Having a graduate is one more step.

“It’s a lot of responsibility on her shoulders,” McCluskey said. “Our students are our best ambassadors of the department.”

Soon, there will be several more, he said, adding that three students are about to finish their Ph.D.s as well.

For Abegunde, the idea of coming to a brand new program in 2009 wasn’t something to shy away from. She said coming in the first year of a program gave her opportunity to think about it and assist in the development.

Plus, she said, IU’s African American and African diaspora studies department didn’t shy away from what she wanted to do.

“I came very specifically for this Ph.D. program because it’s really one of the few that offers a creative option,” she said.

Her dissertation combined creative writing with analytical essays to share the story of a female ancestor and what it was like to survive the Middle Passage — the stage when enslaved Africans were shipped to the New World — as well as discuss the ways historical traumas continue to impact the descendants of those traumas in various ways.

There are still scars that are seen through health issues and social issues, as well as the ways people look to make amends, Abegunde said.

Having a creative option was one way IU wanted to stand out from other Ph.D. programs, McCluskey said.

“The arts are another way of learning, and we have strengths here in drama, music and English,” he said.

In addition, McCluskey said, IU has several centers for study that many universities can’t match, and this Ph.D. program also puts a strong emphasis on student travel and ways for various areas of study to work together, which he said can be especially difficult to do in graduate work.

Knowing there are people in various departments and throughout the community who are there to support you is helpful, and something Abegunde said she’s grateful for.

By having a department that’s willing to work in various areas and in the community, Abegunde said, she was able to combine research, teaching and creative work.

“There is a commitment in the department to scholarship, but also to creative work. They’re not separate,” Abegunde said. “The articulation of the research is different, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not doing research, and I think that was one of the things that was important.”

 

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