Soon after Rachel Smith began teaching college courses, her grandfather Casey Rainwater wondered aloud during a call with his granddaughter, “So, you’re a doctor?”

“No, they just let me teach,” Smith replied with a laugh.

“Well, when are you going to be a doctor?” Rainwater asked.

Smith, an instructional assistant professor in Illinois State University’s School of Kinesiology and Recreation since 2015, had already become the first in her family to attend college, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Western Illinois University. She hadn’t considered pursuing a doctorate.

Rachel Smith with grandfather Casey Rainwater
Rachel Smith was motivated to pursue a doctorate by her late grandfather Casey Rainwater.

Inspired by her call with “Grandpa Casey”—a hardworking barber turned charter bus driver from Rockford with a fifth-grade education and a GED diploma—Smith enrolled in Illinois State’s School of Teaching and Learning’s doctoral program in 2016. For the next five years, until his death in 2020 at age 97, Rainwater often asked his granddaughter, “When can I call you doctor? When can I tell my friends that you’re a doctor?”

“Not yet—almost, Grandpa,” she’d say.

Smith will receive an Ed.D., alongside 23 graduating doctoral students, during Illinois State’s inaugural doctoral hooding ceremony Friday, December 10, in the Prairie Room of the Bone Student Center.

“It’s hard that Grandpa passed away and won’t get to see this for himself,” Smith said. “But I know he’s proud, from where he’s at.”

Smith’s husband and one of her two sons, a mechatronics and robotics engineering major at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, are on her guestlist for the celebration. Smith’s other son is in Arizona completing a juris doctorate program this fall.

“I’ve seen from a first-gen viewpoint how many doors are opened in your world because of education,” Smith said. “Grandpa used to say, ‘Education changes everything. And, if you want to change and do better—you get educated,’ and that’s what I did. So, the ceremony will be significant to be able to celebrate that.”

During the doctoral hooding ceremony, each student—wearing full doctoral regalia—will be escorted to sit center stage in a regal chair while their name, dissertation title, and a brief personal narrative are read aloud. A faculty member of each student’s choice—typically their faculty advisor—and Dr. Noelle Selkow, director of the Graduate School, will then hood the student, signifying their success in completing the doctoral program.

Dr. Noelle Selkow, director of the Graduate School

“The hooding ceremony for a doctoral student is a celebration of the culmination of completing the highest academic degree, a doctorate,” Selkow said. “For many of these students, it’s four to six years of hard work, and it’s an honor to recognize the student in an intimate ceremony.”

In years past, graduating doctoral students were hooded during commencement—ceremonies that included undergraduate and graduate recognition. But as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced a shift in graduation exercises, Selkow seized the opportunity to begin a new doctoral hooding tradition. She drew from personal experience as a University of Virginia doctoral graduate.

“Being the center of attention, even for 30 to 45 seconds, is a special recognition for the student to hear what they have accomplished, as well as receive accolades from their faculty mentors,” Selkow said.

Graduating doctoral student Kate Neally, a math teacher at El Paso Gridley High School and an assistant girls basketball coach at Fieldcrest High School, was aiming to earn a doctorate before turning 30. She missed the goal by just one month, having marked her 30th birthday in November. Nevertheless, Neally is looking forward to celebrating her achievement with her husband and parents during the doctoral hooding ceremony and the Redbird Stage Crossing.

“I’m just proud that I was able to get it done as quickly as I could,” Neally said.

Neally’s dissertation seeks to better understand minority students’ positive educational experiences that led them to majoring in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subject, to examine experiences that challenged their success, and to investigate why minority students are underrepresented among those pursuing a STEM education. Neally is working to publish her research findings in hopes of empowering administrators with strategies to support students and educators of color.

Kate Neally
Kate Neally is one of 23 participants in the inaugural doctoral hooding ceremony.

“I’d like to help teachers be better prepared when entering the classroom, and I want to help diversify teaching through supporting students of color who want to enter teaching,” Neally said.

Smith’s dissertation explores non tenure-track faculty’s perceptions of pedagogical preparedness when they began teaching at the college level and how these individuals describe support they receive in comparison to tenure track faculty. Smith notes that non tenure-track faculty, such as herself, are increasingly utilized to instruct a majority of the undergraduate courses in U.S. higher education.

“I would like to see the practical use of this research, where it’s used by universities to really inform how they’re setting up collaborative support systems for non tenure-track and tenure-track faculty,” Smith said.

Shortly after successfully defending her dissertation, Smith posted to social media, “Three of the most exciting sounds of my life: ‘I do’; ‘It’s a boy’; Congratulations Dr. Smith!’”

Smith will seek publication of her paper while continuing in her sixth year at Illinois State as a kinesiology and recreation instructor focused on recreational therapy.

She also plans on getting a new tattoo.

Smith—nicknamed “Sis” by her “Grandpa Casey”—already has several tattoos of personal significance.

“On one side of my ankle I’ll have ‘Dr.’ and on the other side I’ll have ‘Sis.’”

This story is one of a series of profiles on Redbirds who are graduating this December. For more information about how Illinois State is celebrating commencement this semester, visit the Graduation Services website.