Left to right, Catherine McCormick, Ann Kennedy, Jackie Schmitt, Mittie Quinn, Ceres Artico, and Jan Beauregard.

  The Mason Spirit

The Divine Secrets of the Athenas

Dissertation support group worked on different levels for six women

By Tara Laskowski

Statistics about the 2 percent of the population who hold Ph.D. degrees tell us that only 50 percent of people who start their dissertations actually finish and almost no women with families ever finish. These statistics seemed to stack up against six women in the Graduate School of Education who didn’t like those numbers. So Catherine McCormick, Jackie Schmitt, Ann Kennedy, Ceres Artico, Mittie Quinn, and Jan Beauregard decided to do something to beat the odds.

“I knew myself, and I knew I would never make it without a posse,” says Schmitt. “All women going for Ph.D.s are doing so in the context of lives that require killer multitasking. I knew I would need a school ‘family.’”

The six women met as a group for the first time at the Amphora, a Greek restaurant in Vienna, Va. They talked about their families, their classes, their fears, and their hopes. Someone (they think it was Beauregard) suggested that the group had to have a name. “Something to do with Greece,” she suggested. “We are in a Greek restaurant, Ann has a house in Greece—what better representative for this group than Athena, the goddess of wisdom?” So the name was born.

It took a while for them to define their needs as a group, meeting once a month for tea at the Ritz Carlton, e-mailing back and forth, asking for advice. “There were other groups in our class. They seemed competitive, more structured, and deadline oriented,” says Quinn. “They were passing out deadlines and goal sheets while we were passing out birthday lists. We wanted ours to be an emotional support group as well.”

Beauregard agrees. “There was no element of competition among us, as far as who would finish first. I never felt that. We were all in this together.”

The group began with basic-task-level support—how to finish a proposal, what type of paper to buy, formatting techniques, and research gathering. They helped each other by learning from the others’ mistakes and laughing together at the mistakes they did make. Above all, the group had a sense of humor, which helped get them through those mistakes and occasional bad luck. When Kennedy’s finished dissertation got shipped from the printer’s shop to a woman in Florida by accident, she had the Athenas there to calm her down. When Artico felt like she would never finish her dissertation, the group helped her through it. “I was going through a lot of challenges in my personal life at the time,” she says. “Watching their strength and unconditional acceptance was amazing.”

“The group kept me on target and set in reality,” says Kennedy, who is now a reading specialist for Arlington Career Center. “We could talk about things outside the academic world—husbands, kids, family issues—and be assured that we were not being judged but listened to with respect.”

Then there was the beach house. When Schmitt suggested the women use her family’s beach house for their writing, no one disagreed. “The beach house was significant. There’s something about six women sitting in a tiny place with six laptop computers writing,” laughs Beauregard.

“ It was great. We were all right there, ready to help. You would hear things like, ‘How do you handle this in APA?’ or ‘How do I format this?’ and someone else would shout back the answer. It was instant gratification,” McCormick says. Now a career consultant for George Mason University, McCormick sometimes wonders if she would have finished as quickly as she did without the support of the Athenas.

The group’s constant support and connection helped them not only through the difficult points of research and defenses, but also the daily struggles of life. The Athenas proudly admit they helped each other deal with such family issues as sickness, death, divorce, new careers, Alzheimer’s, and other trials and tribulations, all while working full time and going to school.

Schmitt was the first to graduate, walking in May 2000. Four months later, she suffered a brain injury when her car was hit by an 18-wheel truck on Interstate 495. The injury makes her unable to read the dissertation she wrote, and had she not pushed herself to graduate when she did, she would never have received her doctorate. “In some ways, having a Ph.D. probably means more to me now than the others. It’s a talisman of the brain I used to have,” she says.

The other members of the group used her guidance and inspiration to keep them focused, and the following year, the remaining five Athenas became Ph.D.s. Within two years of forming the group, the six women had accomplished what they set out to do. “We had a 100 percent success rate,” Quinn says. She is currently a licensed school psychologist and professional counselor in private practice at the Counseling Center of Fairfax.

“Graduation was a joy,” Artico, a senior mental health therapist for Fairfax County outpatient mental health services, remembers. The Athenas had crowned themselves with colorful flowered wreaths Quinn had bought in San Antonio. “There we were, middle-aged women wearing paper flower garlands. What a sight!”

“I still can’t believe I did it,” says Beauregard, who now has a private counseling practice in Fairfax, specializing in addiction and trauma. She completed her Ph.D. in five years and says she was able to finish because of the guidance of the rest of the group. “They taught me everything. I think I was the luckiest.”

Now that they have finished, the group has taken on a new dynamic. “We try to meet every month for ethnic dinners,” says Beauregard, adding that their friendship has deepened even past the dissertation writing process. “We bring our husbands now. We’ve named them the Apollos.”