Dissertation Writers Find Power in Numbers

By Barnes, Denise | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 12, 2000 | Go to article overview

Dissertation Writers Find Power in Numbers


Barnes, Denise, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Shireen Lewis has climbed the fractious ivory tower. Now, she's demystifying the dreaded dissertation process for women of color who want to achieve doctoral status.

Ms. Lewis, who holds a doctorate of philosophy in French literature from Duke University, founded SisterMentors Dissertation Support Groups for Women of Color, a nonprofit project, three years ago.

She has a new take on the otherwise solitary seven- to 10-year doctoral process - with its dissertation, a scholarly exposition on a specific subject, complete with footnotes and bibliography and usually as daunting as Tolstoy's epic "War and Peace."

In 1997, Ms. Lewis was just one chapter away from finishing her tome. She did not feel elated or even relieved. Other emotions had seeped into her psyche.

"I was experiencing extreme alienation and isolation while writing my dissertation," says Ms. Lewis, a native of Trinidad.

"I decided there must be other women of color doctoral candidates who were having the same experience."

With a little help from friends Faye Williams and Cassandra Burton of Sisterspace and Books in Northwest, the first meeting of SisterMentors convened at the bookstore on Sept. 27, 1997. Five doctoral candidates attended, Ms. Lewis says.

Three years later, the mentoring group has helped 10 women get their doctorates in different disciplines. "That's a track record," Ms. Lewis says, smiling.

The group of 15 doctoral candidates meets once a month to review individual goals (both long- and short-term) and discuss one another's work. Its interactive structure is similar to a college classroom setting. Ms. Lewis' method has proved so successful that there's a waiting list of doctoral candidates eager to get on board.

"Being a part of a network of doctoral candidates is extremely empowering to women. What really pushes us is seeing others graduate. Once people see progress being made, it's a huge motivator for them," Ms. Lewis says.

"We break down the big dissertation into small pieces, which makes it more manageable. Maybe a person has to read two books or write five to 10 pages. Well, when you look back in three months, you see how much you've accomplished," she says.

There's no charge for the service, Ms. Lewis says.

"We're blessed to have a nurturing, noncompetitive community of women who respect each other. And, we're working together to support each other through the dissertation process.

"Studies show that 50 percent of people [both men and women] who begin a doctorate drop out at the dissertation-writing stage. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it's higher for women of color," Ms. Lewis says.

* * *

Kangbai Konate joined SisterMentors last year. She says the supportive environment and positive group dynamic keep her spirits up and her eye on the prize. Ms. Konate is able, one chapter at a time, to tackle her dissertation on "The Use and the Place of Africa in the African-American Process of Self-Identification." The Adams Morgan resident hopes to get her doctorate in sociology next year from the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris.

"It's a great experience for me. This is a place where we exchange our experiences and we share our victories. But, more importantly, it's a place where we can share our pains and problems," Ms. Konate, 34, says.

"It's interesting to know we are not alone, and that makes a difference. When I joined, I was not writing [my dissertation] anymore. I was tired, and it's a painful process. You're alone in front of your computer, and even if you don't want to write, you've got a deadline even if it is three years away," she says.

Mona Malik agrees.

Ms. Malik, who lives in Gaithersburg, joined SisterMentors three months ago. Already, she's got a new attitude.

"This group works for me. …

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