Indiana’s Great 8

The Sister Circle earned academic and national media recognition for their unique feat.

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This past May eight black women made history as they walked across IU’s stage and accepted their doctorate degrees from Indiana University School of Education. Nadrea Njoku, Jasmine Haywood, Johari Shuck, Demetrees Hutchins, Juhanna Rogers, and Shannon McCullough all completed Ph.D.s in higher education and student affairs while Tiffany Kyser and Jada Phelps-Moultrie both earned degrees in the field of urban education studies. For a school that typically graduates three or four Ph.D. candidates each year and maybe one or two people of color across all disciplines, eight black women graduating simultaneously was significant.

The group of women have been cheering each other on for the past five years as part of a small online community they call the Sister Circle. In the spring of 2011, Njoku and Rogers attended a mentorship session at a conference and decided to create a support group that would unite black women in higher education on both the IUPUI and Bloomington campuses. Since then, the group has met in person only once or twice a semester but also used an online listserv where they shared accomplishments, opportunities, advice, and encouragement with each other.

“Getting your Ph.D. while being a minority raises doubts in your mind about your potential. Watching seven other women shine so brightly around me, despite their individual obstacles, helps me realize my own potential,” says Njoku.

Although they started the program at different times, all eight of the women will be defending their dissertations in the coming months. Believing this was a historical moment for the university, they reached out to the school in March but were told their story wasn’t newsworthy. It was a frustrating roadblock for the women.

“The meaning behind what we have accomplished is so much deeper than me,” said Rogers. “It is about honoring the legacy of the African-American struggle.”

Jasmine Scott tweeted about her exasperation, coining the hashtag, #thegreat8.

She never intended to start a movement, but within a few weeks the story had been picked up by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, Huffington Post, and Essence Magazine.

“It has felt awkward to me, but in this short time that we have been in the public eye, I learned that we have touched and inspired people I could never imagine,” says Haywood. “We have had younger black women and men tell us they’ve decided to apply to graduate school because of us. I have no words for how that makes me feel, and I think that black women should talk about their accomplishments and hard work more often. You never know who is listening, you never know who you can touch, and you can even save a life.”

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