July 2009

Degree earned: Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration with a specialization in Public Safety Management and Homeland Security Policy and Coordination

How I paid for it: It was all student loans.

How long it took: Five years—from November of 2003 to November of 2008. I needed to take all my master's classes again, because it had been so long since I completed my master's degree. The value of that was this time, I had real-world experience to go with the theoretical knowledge—I didn't take things at face value, and I was a lot more vocal in my classes. And the classes were all relevant to what I'm doing now.

What I was doing at the same time: I'm the fire chief for Orange County Emergency Services District #1 in Vidor, Texas. Hurricane Rita hit on September 24, 2005, and destroyed our fire station, and so, while working on the degree, I had to rebuild the station. Our firefighters were living in tents and trailers for three years, and in 2007, Hurricane Humberto destroyed our temporary facilities. During the entire process we went through five hurricanes, one tropical storm, and countless floods. But we never dropped our level of service, and we moved into our new fire station in December 2008.

When I studied: Every night when I got home from work, until the wee hours of the morning. I adjusted my work schedule so I could be off on Fridays and study all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I converted one of our extra rooms into a home office and study. When we went on vacation or away for the holidays, I took my computer with me.

What kept me motivated: I have a phrase that kept me going: "The tassel is worth the hassle." And my wife was a motivating force—she saw me doing bigger and brighter things. When I got discouraged, she'd say, "You're doing this not just for you, but for us—this is our future."

Best thing my family did to help me: They believed in me being able to do it when I didn't believe in myself. And they were right.

Lowest point: When I had to withdraw from school because of Hurricane Rita. I was in New Orleans helping with Katrina about a month before, so I knew how bad it was fixing to be. And I knew that one thing we wouldn't have was access to the Internet. So right before the storm hit, one of my last emails was to my son, and I had him withdraw me from school for a quarter.

Highest point: Walking across the stage in Dallas, with my family there.

Best reason to get a doctorate: It unlocks so many opportunities, and it opens your eyes—you see things in a different way.

What's next: I'm pursuing being a fire chief in a larger fire department. I'd also like to write a book and teach at a university. But for now I'm just taking things a day at a time.

Read more inspiring stories from Walden graduates.