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ASU English education doctoral graduate committed to student success

Portrait of graduating ASU student Rebecca Chatham-Vasquez.

Rebecca Chatham-Vasquez, courtesy photo

December 08, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

Originally from Livingston and Great Falls, Montana, Rebecca Chatham-Vazquez came to Arizona State University in 2018 to pursue a PhD in English (English education). But she wasn’t just a student. While studying, attending conferences, conducting research and writing a dissertation, she also made huge differences in the community.

With boundless dedication and creativity, Chatham-Vazquez served as the English education representative for Graduate Scholars of English Association (GSEA) and created fun and engaging activities for students during the pandemic, including an online yoga and meditation series held via Zoom. Chatham-Vazquez, a certified yoga instructor, believes that breathing and moving together help connect us.

Also, for two years while an ASU graduate student, Chatham-Vazquez was president of the Arizona English Teachers Association (AETA), a statewide professional organization for K–college language arts teachers. During her presidency, she served as their newsletter editor and steered the association to host an online conference during the pandemic — when many other state affiliates of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) canceled or postponed conferences. Because of her perseverance and enthusiasm against all odds, the membership in AETA doubled. She worked diligently with fellow English education students to rejuvenate and rebuild AETA to a now-flourishing organization that supports teachers across Arizona.

Chatham-Vazquez also acted as a reviewer for NCTE Annual Conference proposals and volunteered at the 2019 national conference in Baltimore with the local affiliate to help them host the conference. More locally, she worked with President’s Professor James Blasingame to help host the annual Día De Los Niños, Día De Los Libros celebration at ASU, and volunteered for ASU's Open Door event in 2020, where she portrayed Professor McGonagall for “Hogwarts Spellcasting Sessions.” 

Chatham-Vazquez defended her dissertation "'Culture Grows between Our Toes’: Beginning to Understand the Benefits and Challenges of being a Secondary English Language Arts Educator in Rural Spaces” on Nov. 3. Her qualitative study sought to answer questions about the benefits and challenges of being a rural English teacher, such as teacher recruitment and retention in rural areas. As fate would have it, she and her husband recently moved to the small town of Moorhead, Minnesota, right across the Red River from Fargo, North Dakota. Chatham-Vazquez is an assistant professor at North Dakota State University. “We love it up here!” she said. “The summers are hot and humid, and the winters are cold and snowy. The whole area has about 200,000 people and I never have to drive on the freeway! We definitely miss getting dim sum at Phoenix Palace, but we wouldn't trade our new home for anything.”

We caught up with Chatham-Vazquez to ask a few more questions about how she arrived at her beloved Midwest destination.

Editor's note: Answers may have been edited for length or clarity.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: In hindsight, this is what I have always been destined to do. From the age of 6, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and I hadn't really ever thought about being anything other than a grades 6–12 English language arts educator. In fact, teaching sixth grade English was probably the most fun I've ever had in a classroom because sixth graders are weird and hilarious and sweet and wonderful!

But, in my undergrad, some of my classmates used to say that I would be "the next Beverly," referring to our methods professor, Beverly Ann Chin, at the University of Montana. I admired her so much, and I thought there was no way I would ever be a master teacher of her caliber (I'm still not, but with another 30-or-so years of practice, I might get there). Then, when I went to pursue my master's degree at the University of Arkansas, one of my English 101 students said, "Miss C, have you ever thought about teaching teachers? If I had had more English teachers like you in high school, I would have actually liked English." In that moment, it really clicked for me that I could be good at teaching teachers, that I had something to offer.

When I went back to the high school classroom after earning my master's degree, I found myself mentoring first-year teachers and also being invited by Dr. Chin to co-direct the Montana Writing Project, in which I worked with current classroom educators with experience ranging from one year to 30 years in the classroom. After seeing myself in these positions and helping other teachers, it became clear to me that I needed to pursue my PhD in English education.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: In terms of life, I learned that metro areas are not for me! I'm just not a big city girl. I like to visit big cities, but I prefer to live some place much smaller. So that was good for me to know, especially when I was on the job market. In terms of my education and preparation to be a professor, I really learned to see that less is more. When I was an undergraduate, I spent all of my waking hours either studying or hanging out with friends or doing both at once. ASU's current undergraduates — and undergrads across the country — are living a very different life than I did. They have full-time jobs, they commute, they have children and they have (more than likely) a lot of loans, meaning that they can't take courses just for fun due to the increased cost of college.

Approaching this population as a teacher means that I need to make every second of class count; I need to choose readings and projects that are worth students' time; I need to be mindful of what they can give and what I need to give them in order for them to be successful. This is a realization that I've been coming to for years, even since I was teaching high school in Arkansas. It's important to adapt to the changing world and changing students not only to continue to ensure the relevance of our programs but also the success of our students. I was happy to be challenged to meet students where they are because there's nothing better than seeing students succeed!

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: When looking at PhD programs, I created a gigantic spreadsheet that included things like cost of living, job availability for my partner, proximity to the airport, ease/cost of flying in and out, availability of a variety of courses and probably about 10 more columns that I can't remember now. I applied to ASU because I wanted to be housed in an English department, had noted the prestige of the program and wanted to work with Dr. Blasingame, whom I had met years previously when he presented at a conference in Montana. He was good friends with my mentor from University of Montana, Dr. Chin, and she assured me that I would be well looked after if I came to ASU. I was lucky to be accepted and given the teaching assistantship, which enabled me to pursue my PhD. And Beverly wasn't wrong: Dr. B has looked after me from the moment I came to ASU for my campus visit in March of 2018, until I got into my U-Haul in June of 2023. Honestly, he still looks after me, and I am so grateful for his mentorship.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: James Blasingame, of course! He taught me a million lessons, and I still learn something new from him every time we talk. I've learned so much from him that I don't know if I could narrow it down to one lesson. I guess if I had to choose, I can always hear him saying, "Don't worry, Becca. It'll get done." And he was right!

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

A: Always remember that you are there to get your degree. No matter what, don't let anything stop you from finishing your dissertation. A good dissertation is a done dissertation.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: Honestly, the airplane! I spent a lot of time traveling in my first year at ASU because my dad was sick and I was also planning my and Kevin's wedding, so I was on the plane about every four to six weeks. Then, after my first year and "after" the pandemic, I spent a lot of time traveling for conferences. I'm a captive audience in an airplane, and there is no way to escape the work, so I always get a lot done while flying.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am in a tenure-track position as an assistant professor at North Dakota State University with a joint appointment, half in English and half in education. Each semester, I teach one course for English and one for education, usually young adult literature, grammatical structures and English methods courses (methods of teaching reading and writing). I am also continuing with my state-level service with English language arts teachers in North Dakota and Minnesota, university-level service on the retention and recruitment committees in both of my departments, and national-level service with the National Council of Teachers of English and the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE. My partner and I moved up to the Fargo/Moorhead area in June of 2023, and we bought a home. I gave birth to our baby girl, Elena, in August of 2023, so I've been learning to juggle being a mom, a wife and a professor, which has been a lot of fun!

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

A: I would tackle climate change. Especially now that I am a mom, I feel even more conscious about the kind of world I want to leave behind for Ellie and other young people. It's important that, as adults, we view ourselves as good ancestors for those who come after us, and I think climate is one of the most important concerns when I view myself that way.

Written by Sheila Luna

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