PhD Project encourages people of color to pursue graduate business study

(Photo courtesy of V. Marcia Pruitt)

It took a while, but V. Marcia Pruitt later this month finally will get her sheepskin. Pruitt, a St. Paul Central graduate, will receive her bachelor’s degree from Metropolitan State University during a December 17 fall commencement ceremony. Her journey is a testimonial to the value of formal education and the importance of taking advantage of available support along the way.

“It was on my bucket list to do,” noted Pruitt, who graduates with magna cum laude honors. She told the MSR last week that she completed her degree work in mid-August. “I have worked for 20-plus years and done well in my field of sales. I had about two-and-a-half years of college and about two more years to go.”

Thanks to a supportive husband, Pruitt got back to the books in 2011 that she twice left behind, first in the late 1970s; then, after going back, she left school again in 2001. “I got laid off. The first time [around 2008] was because of the economy,” continued Pruitt, who shortly thereafter found new employment. However, she became a corporate causality “because there was a merger with a company and they downsized my department,” prompting her return to school.

“I was a much better student [this time]. I really enjoyed learning,” said Pruitt, who easily recalled that wasn’t the case when she first attended college over four decades ago. “I graduated [from Central] at a time [when] I don’t think [some teachers] expected us minorities here in Minnesota to go to college. When I finally got to the University of Minnesota, I remember feeling like I was totally out of my league because I was totally unprepared.

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“I could skip class [in high school] and still make an A. I couldn’t skip class and make an A at the U of M. I had to actually study. I had to take a class on how to study because I didn’t have to study before,” admitted Pruitt. “[Before,] I could cram the night before an exam and make an A. These kinds of things should have been taught in high school.”

After completing her coursework in August, “My degree is individualized in human and business development,” she said. “When I first started school [back in the 1970s] I was in psychology, and I didn’t want to leave that.”

Pruitt said she then began looking for a job in human resources: “I’m interested in what makes people be able to work together, especially when you have a society or work environment where you have people now coming from so many backgrounds. That’s why I [took] both psychology and business classes.”

At a job fair at the Minneapolis Convention Center, Pruitt stopped by a booth manned by a woman. “She told me a little bit about the program.” That program is the PhD Project, founded in 1994, which recruits people of color, especially recent college graduates or students still studying for their master’s degree and those currently working in the business field, into doctoral business programs.

It came about, according to their website, “following the termination of the Minority Summer Institute [MSI] run by GMAC [Graduate Management Admission Council] and AACSB [The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business]. MSI encouraged minorities at the undergraduate level to look at a career in academia but did not meet intended expectations.”

The PhD Project is funded by the KPMG Foundation, created in 1968, supporting education in accounting through its Matching Gift Program. “We find the best and the brightest,” said Lisa King, spokesperson for the PhD Project, which annually sponsors a conference.

“I didn’t think I would get in. But I went home and applied,” said Pruitt, who got accepted and attended the PhD Project Conference in Chicago November 20-22 of this year.

King noted that over 800 applications were received and over 350 people of color were in attendance at the conference. “What we do during these three days is give [participants] all the tools they need to learn about what entering a doctoral program would be like,” she explained. They get to meet with current students, professors who have gone through the program, [and] with schools who are interested in hiring them when they [earned their degrees]. They get a full, full look.”

“I was thinking that if I could go to graduate school I would, but I’d already amassed some loans and I didn’t want to make any more debt,” Pruitt said. But after attending the PhD Project conference, she’s become aware of other options. “I did not know until I went to the PhD Project that you can start your PhD program and you don’t necessarily have to get a master’s.”

She also enjoyed seeing the diversity at the conference. “It was just awesome to see a room full with over 350 people, plus the 101 representatives of these colleges. A huge room of people, and it was really wonderful to see so many people of color in such a setting. I learned so much at this conference.”

Not only is Pruitt thinking seriously about attending a graduate business school, but she’s considering perhaps becoming a business school professor as well. This, according to King, is precisely the goal of the PhD Project: According to a 2011 annual report, the number of qualified “minority” business faculty increased from 294 to 1,084 in 17 years. The largest numbers of Black faculty are in management (276), accounting (191) and marketing (161).

“We’ve seen a huge increase in faculty [of color],” King confirmed. “The numbers have quadrupled over the last 20 years, and we feel that is in great part because of our program. We have seen wonderful results.”

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, a wife and mother, and a grandmother of four, Pruitt said that although life has often gotten in the way, she’s learned that formal education is vital. “I remember working real hard and training people, being told to train people, and having that person that I trained end up being my boss. The thing they would tell me is that I didn’t have the education. I don’t know if that was an excuse to not pass somebody who was Black or what.

“Life, after you live it a little while, I realized at different points in my life, [reveals how] the deficit of not having a degree really hurt me. As an older student,” advised Pruitt, “I truly want to see young people take the opportunity and believe in themselves enough to realize that there is so much good support to excel.

“There is support for you to go as far as you want to go, but you’ve got to want it. It may be lack of information or lack of confidence that is holding us back.”

Fore more information on the PhD project, go to www.phdproject.org.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman [at] spokesman-recorder [dot] com.

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Charles Hallman's picture
Charles Hallman

Charles Hallman writes regularly for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and blogs at Another View.