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In Face of Adversity, Pair’s Determination and Courage Led to Ph.D. Degrees at ODU Commencement

commencement-sat-2pm-14Helen Hightower stood to be hooded for her doctoral degree

She was one of 2,700 students receiving Old Dominion University degrees this weekend.

Every student has stories of challenges overcome to reach the finish line, and they should feel justifiably proud of their achievements. The obstacles overcome by Helen Hightower, however, are the ultimate testament to determination and courage.

Five years ago, Hightower was working diligently on a Ph.D. in community college leadership from ODU. She and her husband, Bill, who met in their very first class when the major was offered at the university in 2003, were in the process of collecting data for their dissertations. A life of professional fulfillment awaited.

But their lives were turned upside down in April. Helen was at work at John Tyler Community College in Midlothian when she suddenly had a cerebral hemorrhage.

"It just happened one day. No warning, no symptoms. It came out of nowhere," she said. Hightower was in critical condition for several months. She had to relearn how to swallow, to talk, to walk. She still uses a wheelchair most of the time.

Bill Hightower was working in leadership at John Tyler at the time, and finishing his own doctoral studies.

"At the beginning, the prognosis was not good. We truly weren't sure she was going to make it," said Hightower, who finished his ODU Ph.D. in 2010 and currently serves as vice president of instruction and student development at Wytheville Community College in southwest Virginia.

The stroke changed everything for the family. Helen said she realized how truly blessed she was in the months that followed.

"Bill put everything on hold. I happen to have a wonderful husband that gave me everything. I couldn't have asked for better, more loving care," she said.

After months of physical therapy, speech therapy, vision therapy and healing, Helen Hightower made a declaration that surprised her husband: She wanted to finish her dissertation.

Her study of "helicopter parents" involved holding focus groups at community colleges around the state. With a few modifications, owing to how rapidly she tires out post illness, Hightower completed her data gathering, and wrote and defended her dissertation. Her defense occurred this past spring.

Bill Hightower, who was reminded every day of his wife's resolve when she worked through her recovery, wasn't surprised that she fulfilled her long-term goal of completed the doctorate.

"It was very hard to pull through for both of us. To see her get back to the point where she could complete a dissertation has been great to see," he said.

Dennis Gregory, ODU associate professor of higher education administration, was just as impressed.

"Helen is an inspiration to all of the faculty and her fellow students. She has persevered through a terrible illness and has shown strength few of us have," Gregory said. "Also, the story does not stop with Helen. Bill has been her rock through the entire process, and the love story that brought them together and sustained them through Helen's illness and recovery is one for the ages."

While Bill Hightower completed his Ph.D. four years ago, paving the way for him to assume his current administrative position at WCC, he chose to postpone the big moment of walking across the stage of ODU's Ted Constant Convocation Center, because he wanted to do it with his wife.

Before the ceremony began, the Hightowers shared a quiet moment in the Constant Center's Big Blue Room. "It's all kind of overwhelming," Helen said.

Joining the processional with their fellow 2014 graduates, Helen was recognized along with other doctoral degree recipients of the College of Business and Public Administration and Darden College of Education. She was wheeled up a ramp to the stage where, just before being hooded by her advisor Dennis Gregory, her husband helped her to her feet, so she could stand to receive her degree.

The crowd applauded enthusiastically. As she was wheeled down the ramp by her husband, Helen clutched her bound Ph.D. certificate tightly with both hands. "It's a special day," she said, as her husband wiped away a tear.

Helen Hightower won't be using her doctorate to achieve a senior executive position in community college leadership. She is medically unable to do such a rigorous job, a job that demands so much of Bill Hightower on a daily basis. Instead, completing her academic journey was a demonstration to herself of her determination to reach the finish line.

Gregory, her dissertation committee chair, said working with her the past 11 years has been incredibly fulfilling to him, as well.

"She is smart, resourceful, loved by her colleagues and clearly one of our graduates of whom I am most proud. It has been a pleasure to work with her during the past 11 years and I look forward to a long relationship as her dissertation chair, friend and colleague," Gregory said.

"She has taught me a whole lot more than I have taught her, and her story shows that ODU is a place where dreams, accompanied by hard work, can come true."