Virtually Perfect

Author: Cal Powell

Leslie Anderson defended her dissertation from a dining room in Canton, Miss.

As she set up her workspace just off the kitchen of her childhood home, laptop on the table, her parents sat in the next room over recording every moment.

“It was unconventional,” she said, “but I enjoyed it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic wrought all manner of havoc and grief and interruptions, among them a greater reliance on technology for class instruction.

In March, the UGA Graduate School also announced virtual thesis and dissertation defenses would be permissible. For Anderson, a Human Development and Family Science doctoral student who had already moved back home during the suspension of classes, the decision was a blessing.

“It helped me to really pause and focus on nothing but my dissertation,” she said. “It would’ve been really very different if I were back in Athens with the same number of demands on my time. Just physically being here in the weeks leading up to my defense helped reduce stress.”

Another unexpected benefit of the virtual defense was it allowed more people to share in the experience with her. The youngest of seven children, Anderson grew up in a large, close-knit family in rural Mississippi.

Originally, only her parents and possibly a sister would’ve been able to attend a traditional defense on campus, but 24 people ended up participating in the Zoom call, including friends, family and colleagues.

“It made it a lot more accessible to people who wouldn’t have been able to be there otherwise,” Anderson said.

Considering Anderson’s topic – the plight of some black families in America – the notion of defending her dissertation in her childhood home in Mississippi as her parents beamed from the next room proved almost overwhelming.

The entire presentation was just heartwarming

Leslie Anderson

“The entire presentation was just heartwarming,” she said. “To be in the physical presence of my parents was really special and was sort of a full circle moment for me.”

After the hour-long presentation came to an end and discussions concluded in a separate, remote breakout room, major professor Margaret Caughy returned and uttered those words: “Congratulations, Dr. Anderson.”

“It was just immense gratitude and excitement,” Anderson said, “and definitely a culminating point for me. Lots of smiles and a few watery eyes.”

When it was over, Anderson said, she simply closed the computer and embraced her parents right there in the dining room.

“Honestly that moment is a bit of a blur, but emotions were definitely high,” she said.

Anderson has accepted a faculty position at the University of Southern Mississippi, another homecoming of sorts as the campus is just a two-hour drive south of her hometown and where she earned her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy in 2012.

She plans to someday schedule an in-person celebration for her friends and colleagues back in Athens, but that, of course, will have to wait.

She laughs when asked how she celebrated the pinnacle achievement of her academic career back home in Canton.

“There’s a favorite burger spot close by called Burgers and Blues,” she said, “but we drove by there and they were closed.”

So she and her parents drove through a nearby Chick-fil-A. She ordered a “good ol’ Chick-fil-A sandwich and some Polynesian sauce” with a bottle of water – and she was content.

Then they drove back, passing the pastures and the cows and the tractors on the way back to the only place she’s called home.

“No big celebration,” she said, “but definitely a special time.”

Leslie Anderson Zoom session
With her parents in the next room, Leslie Anderson defended her dissertation from her childhood home in Mississippi