Erikson Conkling has longed to improve the lives of American workers since he watched his father, a Midwestern farmer, and his mother, a bus driver, labor every day to make ends meet. Even with two incomes, the family of five barely got by.
“Everybody in my family pretty much struggled from start to finish,” says Conkling, a Tipton, Indiana, resident. “They never got ahead. They always accepted things as they were, which pained me. I knew I could step out and make an impression on the world. The desire was there. The passion was there. I just needed to back it up with an education.”
Yet Conkling did little to break the cycle as he spent his early 20s playing football, working odd jobs, selling computers, and landscaping yards. It wasn’t until he got married and had three children of his own that he realized the importance of a college education.
“I had a deep desire to positively impact the working class via social and economic change,” says Conkling, now 33. “I wanted workers and their families to avoid the hardships my family was forced to endure.”
In 2004, he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Indiana University South Bend while working as a full-time, third-shift security officer. Eventually, he landed a position at Verizon Telecom as an account services representative. With a growing interest in instituting economic policy changes for his home state—specifically those that benefit working class families—Conkling began researching graduate programs.
The busy father says he selected Walden University for the flexibility of online education along with Walden’s esteemed faculty list and alumni network. “People of real substance have taken these degrees and really made something of themselves,” Conkling says.
Conkling credits Walden’s Master of Public Administration program for challenging him in ways his undergraduate education hadn’t. Within weeks he was hooked on Walden’s social change mission, in particular the scholarly tête-à-têtes he had with public policy professor Dr. Patricia Ripoll, who tactfully taught Conkling to substantiate what he calls his brash, often sweeping opinions.
At the urging of Ripoll, he began reading academic journals and integrating sources into his work. Equipped with better writing skills, he was able to articulate suggestions for correcting income disparities among Indiana’s working class—a subject that would later become the focus of his Ph.D. dissertation.
In December 2008, he earned a Master of Public Administration and immediately enrolled in Walden’s PhD in Public Policy and Administration program. Eager to finally start building on his dissertation topic, Conkling wasted no time pitching the topic to instructors. His ideas for boosting low wages and benefits by offering tax incentives to small businesses helped Conkling earn Walden’s Presidential Scholarship in May 2009.
“Politics permeates everything,” says Conkling. “The reason I studied it in the first place was because I wanted to understand the policies that affected me and my family. I wanted to know what I could do to change them.” In fall 2009, he started his first semester as an adjunct economics and political science teacher at Ivy Tech Community College in North Central Indiana. By teaching both subjects, Conkling plans to share his appreciation for economic policy by illustrating its effects on students’ everyday lives. A natural lecturer, Conkling hopes to become a full-time professor once he earns his PhD in June 2010.
“I was scared to death when I went to graduate school,” says Conkling. “I thought I would never measure up. I thought I wouldn’t stick with it. It’s amazing what a little bit of support, inspiration, and guidance will do.” —Heidi Kurpiela