Student Profile: Rodney McNeill

Name: Rodney McNeill

Current major/degree program: Doctor of Educational Leadership (EdD)

Previous degrees: Bachelor of Science – Elementary Education, ECU ’04; Master of School Administration, ECU ’11

Hometown: Raeford, North Carolina

Hobbies/interests: When I’m not working, I enjoy spending time with family and close friends, going to the beach, and listening to music.

What drew you to pursue your current degree?

Pursuing my doctoral degree was not something I thought would be possible for me. After earning my master’s through the North Carolina Principal Fellows program, I began to see it as something that could happen. Four years ago, when I heard about the program that I’m currently in, it was a combination of the right fit and the right time in my life for me to take a chance and apply. I was intrigued by the three-year cohort model, the problem of practice component. My daughter was a little older and more independent, and I have leadership in the county I work in that encourages us to challenge ourselves and never stop growing. When I put all of that together, it just made sense.

What made you decide to be an educator?

As a first-generation college student, I did not understand the college-going process when I enrolled at East Carolina years ago. My goal had been to go to college. Once I got there, I didn’t know what to expect or what to do. It was a chance encounter with Mrs. Joane Shappley that led me towards education as a major and then a career. The short version of the story is that she was walking across campus and dropped some papers. I helped her pick them up and carried them to her office. She thanked me and asked me my name and major. I told her my name and that I did not have a major, and she basically told me that I should be a teacher and that she could help me do it. I didn’t even have a schedule at the time. That’s how much I did not know about how to go to college. Anyway, she introduced me to Mrs. Rogerson, they helped me pick some classes, sent me to the registrar’s office, and then to the financial aid office. Four years later, thanks to that chance encounter and someone taking the time to help me, I was standing in my own fifth-grade classroom where I taught for five years.

What is your favorite thing about working in education?

My favorite thing about education is it’s one of the few careers where you witness the fruits of your labor almost daily. That’s especially true once you have been in it for several years and you get to see people you’ve helped along the way. I truly love it!

What brought you to ECU?

My grandfather used to tell me, “everything in life is a business decision.” When I researched colleges and universities in high school, ECU had the most to offer at the best price. It was far enough away from home, and after I visited campus one time, I fell in love with it. I never considered any other school for my next degrees. My sister even followed me here a few years after I came, and she too graduated from ECU.

You are currently working on your dissertation on undocumented students and access to higher education. Can you talk about that and what made you pick that as your dissertation topic?

Seven years ago, I knew relatively nothing about what it meant to be an undocumented person in the U.S. Even when I heard undocumented people referenced, I don’t think I understood that there were undocumented children impacted and that I’d probably taught them throughout my career. During my first year as principal, however, I got an up-close education into what it means and its implications. I had a student who earned a full scholarship to a state university and had it taken away from her weeks before she was scheduled to start college because she was not a legal resident. At the time, I didn’t understand why this happened to her. As I began to educate myself on the topic, I learned that it was because of her undocumented status. Several students in my school will likely experience the same fate if someone doesn’t intervene to help. So that is what I am doing. I am using my platform to try and advance the cause for undocumented students. It makes no sense for these students to be charged three and four times as much as resident students to attend universities in states where they’ve lived for years. There is so much that needs to be done, and a great first step would be to offer in-state resident tuition to students who graduate from a North Carolina High School and have lived in the state for two consecutive years. This would dramatically reduce tuition costs for deserving students and make attending college a lot more affordable.

Do you have any advice for students looking to pursue a graduate degree in education?

My advice would be to do it. If you’ve thought about advancing your education, you should do it through East Carolina University. I feel that most people go into teaching because they want to make a difference in young people’s lives. It may be that your own experience made you want to be an educator or that you have children in your life that inspire you now. The graduate school process does so much to challenge your thinking, expose you to resources, and helps you expand your network. You get to learn from colleagues and professors with decades of experience and research to help you become better at your craft. You should take advantage of that if afforded the opportunity to do so!

Any final thoughts on ECU or working in education?

I would just like to thank ECU for what it has done for my life. ECU has helped me break the cycle of low expectations within my network of influence. People around me now know that they can go further and do more because they’ve seen it happen with me. ECU allowed me a chance to grow up and mature personally and academically. I am going to graduate in a few months with my doctorate. I’m the same person that start my college journey at ECU in 2000, not knowing how to register for classes. That is what ECU has done for me, and I am forever grateful to Pirate Nation. Thank you!