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Doctoral student learned valuable lessons in 2020

Mary Mathis Burnett believes if we approach ourselves with kindness, we are better able to approach others with the same attitude

Woman in a robe sitting on a concrete bench

November 15, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Like millions of other Americans, 2020 was a stressful year for Mary Mathis Burnett.

The Arizona State University employee and doctoral graduate had a lot to manage in the past year: the demands of a full-time job, finalizing her dissertation, helping to care for her sister’s three young children, and running her own household. And oh yes, dealing with the same global pandemic that forced everyone to work, study and interact remotely.

The good news? Mathis Burnett learned to practice her own brand of human-centered kindness on herself and has a new philosophy on stress.

“Stress doesn’t ever leave; it’s always going to be there,” said Mathis Burnett, a senior instructional designer with the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions who will receive her EdD from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College on Dec. 14, 2020. “But when it reaches a point where it’s too much, we can’t be afraid to ask for that help. I needed extra support during this time, but it was also about acknowledging my own limitations so that I could accommodate them. You can’t accommodate what you won’t allow.”

After Mathis Burnett receives her diploma next week, her limitations – professionally speaking – will be few. ASU Now spoke to Mathis Burnett about her experiences as a doctoral student and her path going forward.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to earn your Ed.D?

Answer: I think I always knew I would do a doctoral program. As a kid, I always said that I wanted to know everything about everything, so more school seemed like the way to go. I actually entered an EdD program ten years ago, but I didn’t finish because I found that I didn’t know enough about where I was going to really begin the dissertation process.

Entering the EdD at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College was a much different experience for me. By this point, I knew better who I was and what I wanted to do. So when it came time to start asking questions, I had a few to work with. Halfway through the program, I bumped into a theory that lit up inside me, and I knew I would take it all the way this time.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU?

A: I think I learned to reach out. Life is hard for everybody, isn’t it? For me, I have always been an independent source for myself, so when I encountered problems, I would just tuck in and push through. Going through the EdD program at the same time that I experienced some of the most emotionally demanding and overwhelming circumstances of my life and adding a global pandemic to that, I had to learn that I wasn’t alone.

There are people around who not only can but will and not only will but want to help. Admitting that things were difficult and expressing that I was afraid I didn’t have what it takes – those are hard things, but hearing my committee chair say “I believe in you” fed my soul in a way that kept me going.

I suppose what I really learned in a tangible way was that we are better when we connect with each other. It’s not always easy to do that, but it’s worth the effort.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I’m a Sun Devil! I did my undergrad here, and really the program was almost everything I wanted. I searched for a while for programs with a bent toward change, justice, and service and those that would at least allow me to move in those directions. Within those programs, I looked for those that would let me continue working as I studied. The EdD in leadership and innovation here was the only one that fit the bill fully, and it actually gave me far more than I expected.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Be easy. Take your time, and do it the way that works for you. Everyone has a different life with their own issues, processes, needs and aspirations. Follow your path and take a deep breath along the way.

School is hard. Life is hard. We’re all stressed out and, in a pandemic-controlled, election year with active social unrest, time no longer makes sense and every task is a heavier lift. If we can approach ourselves with kindness and compassion, we are better able to approach others with the same kindness and compassion. We all need more of that.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?

A: I did my EdD online, but during my undergrad on Tempe campus, I used to favor a nook over by the Student Services Building. It’s not a busy place because of its location, but there are picnic tables surrounded by bushes, and it was a quiet place to nap between classes. Now that I think about it, that might have been useful during my EdD, too!

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: No real ability to travel or do much at this point, but I’m looking forward to hanging out with my dogs, my family and maybe even reading for fun again. For work, I am planning to continue where I am for a moment while I take a deep breath. I am also talking to my supervisor and leadership about the potential for applying my dissertation research to our processes and outcomes. With any luck, we’ll be able to take some steps that will help illuminate a path for me going forward.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: If I thought money alone would do it, I would dismantle the pervasive and crippling system of white supremacy. We have incredible and uneven power and control in the U.S. and whole systems designed to maintain them unchallenged. Curing us of these systems and dynamics will take more than money, and because we are so deeply enculturated to the systems, we often don’t see them.

The same way a fish might be unaware of the water, those of us who are unoppressed have adjusted to the dynamics in a way that allows us to forget, ignore or deny they exist. This adjustment is a privilege undeniably afforded white people in disproportionate measure, and our becoming aware of the ways we benefit from the distribution of power feels like an important first step toward the change which will counter those systems to allow for the free movement of all.

So with $40 million, I think I would challenge those supporting white supremacy and step forward to focus on redistributing wealth to marginalized communities while continuing my work in the broader field of education working toward a more equitable, diverse and critically reflective system.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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