One grad’s personal commitment to education informs student retention strategies

Dr. Marilyn Hamilton ’15
Photo by Greg Dohler.
Dr. Marilyn Hamilton ’15 never intended to stay in higher education. But 15 years after taking a job as an instructor at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), she’s now firmly seated in the ranks of well-respected higher education leaders, thanks, in part, to a colleague who encouraged her to pursue her PhD in Education at Walden.

Hamilton’s background was in early childhood education. She was an assistant teacher, lead teacher, center director, and consultant in that chapter of her career. She joined UDC in 1999 to set up the child development center and to teach courses in early childhood education. She returned to the university in 2004 to support the education department’s accreditation efforts. Once the program became accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, she was hired full time. But the Howard University bachelor’s and master’s graduate had no plan to pursue a PhD—until her colleague, the late Dr. Rosemary Bolig, told her about Walden University, where Bolig served as a dissertation coach and mentor.

“Rosemary just kept saying to me, ‘Marilyn, if you’re going to stay in higher ed, you need to get your doctorate,’” Hamilton recalls. “She thought Walden would be the best place for me.”

Bolig was correct. Hamilton had begun her doctorate at a traditional brick-and-mortar institution. “My parents were declining in health, and my children were young, so I couldn’t spend the time going to a face-to-face institution,” Hamilton says. “I began talking to Rosemary more about Walden and its philosophy of social change and social justice, and I decided to enroll.”

Hamilton took a year or two off to care for her parents, but she returned to her doctorate program after her mother passed away. “It was never my intention to not return, but my dissertation chair, Dr. Deborah Bauder, provided guidance and support that was extremely helpful during my leave of absence,” she says. “She understood what I was going through and kept my feet to the fire. I finished my PhD in Education in 2015.”

Having persisted through challenges as a student herself, Hamilton has made student retention a priority in her oversight of 25 associate degree and two certificate programs as dean of academic affairs at UDC Community College.

“We’re focused on making education more relevant and fitting to the needs of our students,” Hamilton says. “I’ve worked on initiatives such as Achieving the Dream, Complete College America, and Commit to Complete, which all help students with persistence, retention, and completion, encouraging them to go from their associate degrees to bachelor’s and beyond.”

Although her work now is at the community college level, she sees plenty of parallels for student retention at all levels of higher education. When asked what advice she would give other higher education administrators about student retention, Hamilton says: “There are many, many programs and initiatives out there. Pick the one that best suits your institution and modify it.”

Her most important tip is something she learned from experience when researching whether to pursue her doctorate. She talked to Bolig for months on end, but eventually, she just took the leap. “Just go ahead and do it,” Hamilton says. “There comes a point in time when you’ve done all your research and you’ve engaged everyone you needed to engage. You just have to decide to do it.”

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