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October 21, 2021

Teacher earns Ph.D. in front of school audience

WATSONVILLE — When Watsonville High School government and economics teacher Sara Roe received her Ph.D. on Oct. 2, she defended her dissertation in front of a panel of professors.

That process, intimidating and rigorous to be sure, is generally the final step for all students who reach that academic milestone.

What was unusual about Roe’s defense was that it took place at Watsonville High, in front of 200 students and staff.

Roe said it was the first time that a teacher who is a doctoral candidate has defended his or her dissertation in front of their students.

Short of contacting every university in the world, the Pajaronian has no way of confirming this assertion.

But Roe said the impact among her students after the event was immediate and tangible.   

That’s when she heard many of them discussing what they would do when they earned their own Ph.D.

“It sparked exactly the conversation we wanted,” Roe said.

That was precisely why Roe decided to open the doors to what is normally a small, somber gathering.

“If we want our kids to achieve higher education, they have to see people doing it,” she said.

Roe also said her achievement underscores the importance of teachers seeking continuing education.

“We want them to see teachers as lifelong learners,” she said.

Roe said that three professors, one on videoconference from Italy, grilled her on her dissertation for nearly two hours.

She received her Ph.D. in transformative studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

Her topic focuses on how a society can flourish – meaning successfully grow and thrive – while moving toward sustainability. That, she said, was a process that began in 2013 and combined a smorgasbord of disciplines including ecology, economics and sociology.

Her studies also required several trips to the Aeolian Islands in Italy, which were the focus of her studies.

But despite the achievement, and despite her newfound ability to tack a “Dr.” onto the front of her name and to write a “Ph.D.” after it, she wanted the focus of this story to be on her students.

“It is because of you that I am here,” she told them after her dissertation had been approved with no changes.

“You are my inspiration every single day. For the past 20 years I’ve had the blessing and the gift to teach you, and today is just one more of those days.”


To view Roe defending her doctoral dissertation, visit


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