11:02 AM

Pursuing a PhD: Unique Program Prepares Students for Doctoral Study

Growing up with five siblings and relying on a single parent, CSUSM graduate-student Gina Altavilla never imagined she’d be ready to pursue a doctorate, let alone attend college. Through the support of the California Pre-Doctoral Program, junior, senior, and graduate students, like Altavilla, have a unique opportunity to explore and prepare for post-graduate study.“I never expected to be on the trajectory I’m on and I certainly never thought I’d be preparing to pursue a Ph.D. in English,” said Altavilla, who surprisingly failed tenth grade English in high school.In 2000 as a first-generation college student, she earned her B.A. in literature and writing with a minor in Spanish from CSUSM.  Today, she’s finishing her master's degree from CSUSM and getting ready for her next educational step – pursuing a Ph.D. to become a university professor – with the help of the California Pre-Doctoral Program. The California Pre-Doctoral Program is designed to increase the number of future faculty by supporting the doctoral aspirations of CSU students who have experienced economic and educational disadvantages. Jointly developed by the CSU and the University of California (UC) systems in 1989, the scholarship program prepares students for doctoral study through faculty mentoring, scholarly and research opportunities, interaction with doctoral-granting institutions, membership in professional associations, and attendance at professional conferences.Last year, 70 CSU students received the prestigious award and earned the title as a Sally Casanova Scholar, for whom the pre-doctoral scholarship is named. Along with the honor, each scholar receives a $3,000 grant to pursue their doctoral studies. “This scholarship really thinks about the needs of students and provides support for promising scholars interested in pursuing a doctorate that would have otherwise not had access or would not have persisted due to economic or educational disadvantages,” said CSUSM Professor Dr. Martha Stoddard-Holmes, who encouraged Altavilla to apply for the program.As her sponsoring faculty mentor, Stoddard-Holmes acquaints Altavilla with information about academic careers and helps identify learning experiences that prepare her for her future studies. The scholarship program also enables the faculty mentor and scholar to attend national symposiums and conferences. Recently, the pair attended the Modern Languages Association Convention, which is the biggest national conference in humanities.“Prior to this program, I had never been mentored before,” Altavilla explained. “I had mentored others, but never really grasped the full benefit of having that mentoring relationship for myself -- someone to coach me, encourage me, and be that support system I needed to get me through my thesis and help me be a strong, competitive candidate for a doctoral program.”Altavilla credits her mentorship with Professor Stoddard-Holmes as an invaluable asset that helped her complete her graduate research and 75-page thesis, which examined the literary discourse of disability. In her thesis, she explored Ian McKellen’s 1995 film interpretation of William Shakespeare’s historical play Richard III, chronicling the rise and short reign of England’s king who was disabled. But rather than follow the expected notions of disability, which are usually depicted as weak, asexual, and corrupt, McKellen portrayed Richard as masculine, physically strong, highly-sexual, and queer.“My research is looking at fictional identities and examining the performance of disability, how it’s communicated and portrayed, and what it does to the interpretation since disability is a social-cultural construction,” she explained. “Literature frames the lens from which we view our world.”This summer, Altavilla will continue her research interests in disability discourse with a six-week summer internship with internationally-renowned disability theorist Dr. Robert McRuer of George Washington University. The paid internship is made possible through the pre-doctoral program.“This scholarship program has opened so many opportunities for me to be successful,” Altavilla added. “I encourage students who are considering a doctoral program and have an interest in being a university faculty member to apply.”Eligibility for the California Pre-Doctoral Program is limited to junior, senior and graduate students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents and are currently enrolled in a degree-seeking program at a CSU campus. Applications are due to the CSUSM Office of Graduate Studies and Research by March 7. For more information, visit www.csusm.edu/gsr.