Fall 2020 Doctoral Commencement Student Speaker Shares His Unconventional Journey to a Ph.D.

Dale Weeks is one step closer to a dream decades in the making

By Micaela Burrow, Texas A&M Office of Graduate and Professional Studies
COLLEGE STATION, December 09, 2020 — William “Dale” Weeks is set to graduate from Texas A&M University with a Ph.D. At 56, he’s older than his peers and a few of his professors. But Weeks says he doesn’t regret the setbacks and soul-searching moments he encountered along the way. On the contrary, he believes that his experiences have made him a more persevering, confident student.
“I’m not finished with my process yet,” he says. “This Ph.D. empowers me. My dream has been to be a history professor. We’ll see.”
A First Career
Weeks grew up in the deserts of New Mexico, the son of Methodist missionaries to local Navajo people. While his mother attained her master’s degree when he was young, his father didn’t complete his bachelor’s until he was 58. Weeks says he would have liked to attend a four-year institution, but he never received the tools he needed to prepare for college.
“The communication was never there about what it would take for us to achieve our dreams,” says Weeks.
After graduating high school, Weeks began working fulltime at assorted jobs, never settling on one. He moved to Dallas with his parents after they retired. There, he says, he “heard a divine call to the ministry.” 
He began a 20-year career as an itinerant preacher, marrying and having a daughter along the way. But the frequent moving around exacted increasing tolls on his family. Often they lived in parsonages and drove church-owned vehicles, both changing every few months or years. Then he and his wife suffered the tragedies of a stillborn baby and a miscarriage within two years. Weeks says he counseled his parishioners, but neither he nor his wife successfully addressed these events at home. The two divorced after their daughter graduated high school in 2006. 
Feeling he could no longer work in ministry, Weeks found himself with the opportunity to reassess his life. “If I’m going to start over, I’m going to start over doing what I want to do,” he remembers thinking.  
A New Beginning, An Old Dream
In 2006, Weeks cold-called the main number at Texas A&M University-Texarkana to ask if he could meet with a history professor. That’s how he met Dr. Thomas Wagy. 
“I walked into his office and told him I wanted his job,” says Weeks. 
Wagy encouraged Weeks to look beyond the job and to value the process itself. “Don’t come to get a degree; come to get an education,” he told Weeks.  
That proverb became Weeks’ mantra. By the next spring, he had enrolled in undergraduate courses. Often, Weeks would walk into the first class period of the semester having read the entire textbook, and when he graduated in 2008, he had already published an academic paper.  
Weeks managed working a fulltime job as a furniture salesman while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. A minor in English landed Weeks a post-graduation job teaching at an alternative high school. The desire to apply for a Ph.D. program weighed on him, but he hesitated.  
“For the first time in years I had some sort of stability,” he says.  
Weeks taught for another five years until the possibility of his school closing permanently compelled him to invest once more in his own education. Around that time, he began sharing his feelings with a group of nontraditional students with whom he had connected on LinkedIn. They encouraged him to apply to graduate school.  
He submitted his application to Texas A&M in College Station so far ahead of the deadline that the admissions office inadvertently placed his application in the previous year’s files.
His application was found, however, and he was admitted in fall of 2014. Instead of teaching high school, Weeks now taught undergraduate students at Texas A&M as a teaching assistant while pursuing a Ph.D. He was 49.  
Shortly after Weeks turned 50, doctors found a large precancerous polyp in his colon that required immediate removal. Weeks took incompletes for his Spring 2015 classes and moved back to Texarkana for an arduous recovery process. Complications from the first operation led to three more surgeries over the next three years.
Weeks feared might never complete his doctorate: “At that point, I thought I wasn’t going to return to College Station. I was so discouraged. That fire had started to go out.” 
To pay the bills, he returned secondary education. “I was in a Ph.D. program and yet I’m teaching middle school English,” he remembers thinking. 
One of Weeks’ LinkedIn connections, a woman named Merritt, convinced him to rededicate himself to his program. According to Weeks, she is the one who restored his passion for education. He and Merritt became close. The two would marry in June 2017. 
The Long Stretch
A delayed decision meant Weeks had relinquished funding opportunities the first year of school after recovering from his medical crisis. Over the next three years he took his Ph.D. courses, taught at Stephen F. Austin Middle School in Bryan, and filled in at Blinn College. He relished having an office at in a college history department. 
Of teaching at the university level, Weeks says, “I absolutely realized that’s where I need to be--for the rest of my life.”
Weeks also says he recognizes the privilege it is to be an Aggie. “I get to not just study history; I get to study history at Texas A&M University,” he says. “This isn’t a small thing.” 
Having nearly lost his dream to illness made him a better student, Weeks says, and more appreciative of those who sacrificed on his behalf. Several people at Texas A&M, including former Graduate Director Adam Seipp and advisors Walter Buenger and Walter Kamphoefner, supported him through his degree program. 
According to Seipp, “Dale’s perseverance is nothing short of remarkable. His work and career is a reminder of the connection between scholarship and public service that is a core part of our identity at Texas A&M.” 
“I was highly impressed by both the speed with which he completed his dissertation and the quality of his work,” says Kamphoefner. Weeks wrote and defended his dissertation in nine months. 
The Road Ahead
Now, with his doctorate completed, Weeks is searching for a professorship. He says his age and current university hiring freezes may compound the difficulty of achieving his goal. 
But he remains determined. “The Lord didn’t bring me to this point just for the degree,” he says. “All along, it has been about the education, and I think that’s going to lead me to something else. I just have to keep pressing.” 
He says he hopes his life story will demonstrate that he can do more for students than simply impart information. He can inspire them to learn. To this day, Weeks advises his students the same way Wagy advised him all those years ago. “Don’t come to get a degree,” he tells them. “Come to get an education.”  
Those who cannot attend the Texas A&M Doctoral Commencement on Thursday may stream the event live

Media contact:
  • Rob Dixon, Texas A&M University Office of Graduate and Professional Studies, 979.845.3631, rdixon@tamu.edu.

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