Dr. Kelly Wheeler, a recent PhD in Public Health graduate, never dreamed of obtaining a master’s degree, much less a doctorate. “In college, I was the only one out of my friends who said I wasn’t going to go to grad school,” she recalled. However, after going on several mission trips to Latin America and seeing the different health issues faced by communities there, Dr. Wheeler was inspired to take a leap of faith and pursue a master’s degree in public health. After researching Walden’s online program, she decided to enroll in the Master of Public Health (MPH), and later went on to earn her doctorate at Walden.
For Dr. Wheeler, completing both degrees was no small feat, but perseverance has been a defining characteristic since she was very young. Born with an unknown genetic syndrome, she underwent seven painful plastic and reconstructive surgeries at a young age. Because Dr. Wheeler was slow to develop and grow, doctors weren’t sure if she would be able to attend kindergarten. But attend she did. Looking back on her experiences, Dr. Wheeler is humbled by how far she has come. “I was able to go to kindergarten and now obtain a doctorate,” she says, “I’m a living, breathing miracle."
When it came time to select her dissertation topic, Dr. Wheeler decided to tap into her personal experience and conduct her research on the quality of life of individuals who have Crouzon syndrome, which causes facial deformities. She wanted to give back to the community that supported her during her childhood and help patients in similar circumstances.
As she prepares for commencement on Aug. 17, Dr. Wheeler reflects on her educational journey and goals for the future in Spotlight on Walden.
If there has been one defining moment since returning to school to pursue your master’s degree, what would you say it was?
My defining moment was when I was deciding on my dissertation topic. I had done my research on HIV throughout my master’s program. I love the topic but I have done so much research on it that I decided it was time to be brave and go back to a time in my life that was very personal and emotional for me. I was not going to walk away from that experience, but instead open up and help others. Through my dissertation, I was able to make a positive impact not just by telling my story but by giving others a voice as well.
What advice would you give to students who are working through their dissertation?
Building a supportive network of classmates and faculty is really important. I would meet people at residencies and exchange phone numbers or connect through Facebook. We would communicate with each other when we were having issues. If you’re having a down day, call another student; because if you’re down, the other person is usually up.
It’s easy to get discouraged when you are working on your dissertation. It can feel as if you’re not quite where you need to be. When you feel insecure, find support, and keep plugging away. You have to give yourself space to learn in that process. Give yourself the room to grow. You’ll get through it.
Now that you have graduated, what’s next for you?
I hope to apply my research through working with the Children’s Craniofacial Association (CCA). I would like to take the steps outlined in my dissertation and move those forward. Some of those steps include a mentorship program that pairs adults who have Crouzon syndrome with younger patients who are just coming out of surgery, as well as a tutoring program for patients who are going through the surgical process and consequently are absent from school for long periods of time.I also hope to improve on my research and test it among groups of people with other syndromes.
Finally, I would like to teach online and provide consulting services with the CCA and other nonprofit organizations. I recently accepted an online adjunct MPH faculty position at Concordia University-Nebraska.
How has your education at Walden prepared you for the future?
My Walden education has given me the confidence to achieve.I think that through the process of obtaining a master’s degree and a doctorate, I look at the world as a little larger and my ability to contribute as a little greater. Now, I feel like there are no limits in terms of the things I can do in my life. I think that’s the greatest thing I’ve gained from this experience. Through Walden, I have developed skills that I can use for a lifetime, both in my career and in my personal life.
Dr. Wheeler was awarded an honorable mention in the 2010 Scholars of Change contest.