A self-proclaimed "later-in-life" graduate student, Donna Knudsen didn’t think she could take her academic journey any further—until she discovered USF’s Ed.D. in Educational Program Development. Knudsen quickly enrolled in the program and used her dissertation to create a project that provides faculty mentorship to doctoral students at USF, a project that she hopes provides the same sense of community to others that helped her reach her own goals.
USF’s St. Petersburg campus has been Donna Knudsen’s home for over 30 years.
Beginning as an administrative receptionist for Academic Affairs in 1990, Knudsen had a front row seat to the growth that occurred on campus.
As the years went on, she pursued higher roles, developed a passion for helping graduate students and wrote down two goals she was set on accomplishing: earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.
“It became more and more important for me to have the experiences of the people I worked with and for,” Knudsen said. “I just didn’t think I’d be able to achieve a doctorate.”
In 2010, Knudsen graduated with a degree in American Studies from Eckerd College and later attained her Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from USF. Before advancing to her current position as Campus Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies, her goals grew bigger.
In 2016, a former colleague informed her about USF’s Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Educational Program Development. Knudsen researched the program on a Friday, applied on the following Sunday and joined the program’s first cohort in the fall.
“Given my advanced age, I didn’t think it was doable or worthwhile to consider a doctorate,” Knudsen said. “But, when I learned about (the program’s) practical application to my job and that it could be completed in three years, it became my new goal.”
Knudsen began her doctoral path with a diverse cohort including principals, teachers, higher education professionals, a military training specialist and a corporate trainer.
From the very start, she gained the support of mentors such as program coordinator Howard Johnston, PhD, a USF emeritus professor of teaching and learning, and Ann Cranston-Gingras, PhD, professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Educatoin. Their encouragement was crucial after Knudsen faced the devastating loss of her son, Drew, three months into her first semester. This life event, she shared, gave her every reason to give up.
Instead, her support system and a drive to honor the memory of her son motivated her to continue.
“When I told him about being accepted into the program (months before), my son called me and said, ‘I am so proud of you and I can’t wait to call you ‘Dr. Mom,’” Knudsen recalls. “My staff and everyone in my cohort knew that and so they all rallied for me to get to the finish line.”
As she navigated throughout her studies, Knudsen saw clearly how the support of her
community played a role in her success. Curious about the experiences of postgraduate
students, particularly those who decide to pursue doctoral degrees later in life,
she conducted research and came across findings that would guide the focus of her
One study, she said, revealed that almost 50 percent of doctoral students don’t complete their degrees and quit at the point of dissertation because they lack support and mentoring.
Another research finding, Knudsen said, suggests that with online or hybrid learning that number can be up to 70 percent.
When it came time to present her dissertation, Knudsen introduced a solution that involves developing a computer-based mentor-matching system. Doctoral students would fill out a survey, share their research topic and answer a series of questions that would eventually lead to them matching with a faculty member that can provide mentorship.
“Opportunities for matching are based on three key areas: guidance, integrity and relationships,” Knudsen said. “By using a business application called cluster analysis, everything gets filtered down to a one-on-one match…I call it ‘Relate-A-Bull.’”
Since graduating with her Ed.D. and earning the title of ‘Dr. Mom’ in the fall of 2019, Knudsen has worked with the university to make her Relate-A-Bull project a reality. Though the initiative is still in the research and development phases, her aim is to launch the program by 2025 and have it freely accessible to doctoral students across all three USF campuses.
When she reflects on her time in USF’s EdD program, Knudsen says making the decision
to enroll as a student allowed her to make an impact in the areas she’s passionate
about. Her advice for individuals like her, who aim to pursue an academic path at
a later age, is to think critically about the program they choose.
“In addition to seeking out a strong support system of academic and peer mentors, later-in-life students need to consider what the degree means to them,” Knudsen said. “If you can cross that threshold from it being a strictly professional goal to a personal goal, you’re going to have a much better chance at succeeding.”
USF's Ed.D. in Educational Program Development prepares graduates to create, launch and evaluate promising, sustainable innovations in their own professional settings. The program is open to those who work in Pre-K through grade 12 settings and to post-secondary educators and educational professionals who work in the private sector, with nonprofits, or other government or service agencies.