Doctoral candidate and first-generation student knows what it takes to make a difference
Shelby Gonzales’ impact as an educator began with the University of South Carolina.
Originally recruited to play softball in her undergraduate years, she credits her
experience on the team with helping her find success as a first-generation college
“Softball was my gateway to understanding the collegiate process,” Gonzales says. “The Gamecock softball family still supports my journey in education and still makes me feel like a member of the team.”
The team-focused mindset of the softball field quickly carried over to her experience in the College of Education’s education specialist program. Upon graduation, Gonzales was hired as a school counselor in Richland County School District Two and cultivated her student-centered approach to counseling. She worked there for one year with a diverse population of students — many came from military families.
“During that year, college faculty encouraged me to begin my doctorate, but the timing was not right for my family,” Gonzales says.
Instead, Gonzales moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where she was hired at as a School Counselor at a rural, Title 1 school that had a large migrant-worker population. This meant some students would leave the classroom in October when their parents found work in warmer climates and return just before end-of-year testing in April.
“The mid-year transition was challenging for my students,” Gonzales says. “It became clear they needed more people who cared for them and understood their specific needs. My students related to my background as a Hispanic person, which meant they were comfortable coming to me.
With that personal connection to her students, and as a first-generation college student from a Hispanic family, Gonzales understood how students could benefit from school counseling and she knew the impact strong therapeutic relationships could have on her students.
“Many of my Hispanic students reminded me of my dad,” Gonzales says. “He did not speak English when he started school. He was one of nine siblings. My aunts, uncles, grandparents and father did not have the privileges I was afforded when I began my education.”
To Gonzales, education is priceless, and when the opportunity to return to the University of South Carolina as a Holmes Scholar presented itself, she and her husband knew the time was finally right. Gonzales realized she could have a bigger impact on the field of school counseling, by earning a doctorate degree and becoming a counselor educator to help future school counselors meet the unique needs of the communities they serve.
Gonzales is grateful for the financial support the Holmes Scholarship brings. The program supports doctoral students from historically underrepresented communities to pursue a career in education. As a Holmes scholar, Gonzales was awarded $22,000 annually for up to three years for engaging in a part-time graduate assistantship and completing work for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“For me, as a first-generation student, being able to pursue my doctorate without taking on additional loans is a game changer,” Gonzales says. “Also, the mentorship I received from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is invaluable. Dr. Bryan is incredible with the support and insight she gives regarding life in academia. She looks at our resumes, grant proposals and anything else we need to ensure our success as we navigate our time in the doctoral program.”
While completing her coursework and research, Gonzales worked with the College of Education’s Apple Core Initiative students. She has also worked with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to share mental health teaching practices with the college community.
“The program provided many opportunities for me to practice my expertise professionally, in and out of the classroom,” Gonzales says.
Gonzales collaborated with classmates across disciplines through co-research and guest lecturing.
“My classmate, Ayan Mitra (2021, doctorate, teaching and learning), and I were able to present at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education conference. We bridged our respective fields of mental health and neuroscience. These are the types of connections I never knew were possible for me,” Gonzales says.
Gonzales hopes to inspire collaboration in her future roles as well. With her research, she hopes to make school professionals more effective in their roles.
“My dissertation is focused on creating an intervention for graduate students enrolled in advanced-degree programs in the College of Education. I want our graduate students who aspire to work within the education system to learn more about the responsibilities and roles of their future colleagues,” Gonzales says. “The more we know about others’ areas of expertise, the more effectively we can collaborate professionally.”