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NewsMay 14, 2020

Kate Contini crossing fourth academic finish line

‘Lesley faculty cares,’ says new doctor of education. ‘At Lesley, I had a voice.’

2001 graduation group photo
Photo: Kate McMillan Contini's 2001 graduating class.

Kate McMillan Contini ’01, ’02, ’13 and ’20 really likes Lesley, enough to earn three degrees and a certificate of advanced graduate studies (CAGS).

A public-school teacher for 18 years in the Acton-Boxborough school district in north central Massachusetts, Contini hails from the southeast Massachusetts town of Somerset (“Go Blue Raiders!” she says), though now resides in Hudson, New Hampshire.

And Contini considers Lesley as something of a “second home,” one where she has devoted considerable time and effort.

“I received my Bachelor of Science in '01 with a dual major of elementary education and humanities, and a specialization in reading,” Contini says. “I received my Master’s in elementary education in '02 after I completed the dual degree program. I received my CAGS in literacy when I completed the literacy specialist licensure program in 2013; and am now receiving my Ph.D. in education this year through the Individually Designed Program, with a focus on the motivation of middle school readers.”

Sure, that sounds like a lot of school. But let Contini, in her own words, shine some light on her motivation for higher-education achievement and her esteem for Lesley.

Kate Contini senior photo in black and white
Kate Contini's 2001 senior photo

Q. What possessed you to go for a fourth degree?

A. Possessed! That's a great word! It's a complex answer. A) My professor, Dr. Valerie Shinas, in my reading program convinced me it would be good for me — and then she became my senior advisor; B) I am interested in working at least part time in higher education with pre-service teachers. Having the doctoral degree opens more opportunities to do just that. C) As a kid whose mom and dad both only have high school diplomas. My sister and I were among the first in our family to obtain college degrees, and I was the first member of my family to get a graduate degree, so I thought, why not be the first doctor too?

Q. What is it about Lesley that earned your esteem and loyalty?

A. The short answer? Since 1997 Lesley has been my second home. There were times as an undergrad where I faltered, since I was working full time at a Beacon Hill restaurant to pay my own way, and when I did, the faculty helped see me through. They supported me financially with work-study hours. They supported me emotionally — the staff at the elementary education undergrad office from ’97-02 were my extended family — and, of course, academically.

Lenore Parker and Susan Merrifield were so encouraging when I was an undergrad. In my master’s year, Bill Stokes and Stephanie Spadorcia were so helpful. For my CAGS, Valerie Shinas and Barbara Steckel meant the world to me. For my Ph.D. program, there were so many, but again Dr. Shinas, Dr. Stokes, and especially Dr. Robin Roth made all the difference in the world.

Lesley faculty cares. Even when I did continuing ed courses at other institutes it was different. At Lesley, I had a voice. I mattered.

Q. What does your family think about your higher-education pursuits?

A. As I alluded to before, college was not a given in my family. I'm third-generation American, the great-grandkid of Irish, Scottish, Canadian and Portuguese immigrants. These great-grandparents came here with very little, but they came with a dream. 

My grandparents and parents continued to strive for dreams and work hard for goals. My mom stayed home and put her own dreams on hold to raise my sisters and I. My dad, too, traded in a Broadway dream to work long retail hours and was often away on business to make a living for our family and make sure my sisters and I had a good K-12 education. 

Needless to say, I come from a long line of hardworking people with big goals who wanted to do better for their kids. So, I did that. I worked hard and tried to fulfill goals my parents had for me. I don't think they saw me going beyond the M.A, which I originally did as I knew it would be required to teach in Massachusetts, but I guess I surprised them. My dad and mom are both very proud, and made that known for social media to see, when I successfully defended on March 20th. I know my grandparents are celebrating with me up in heaven. I'm not sure my sisters really think about it, but my best girlfriends are incredibly supportive and proud.

Q. What sort of sacrifices have you had to make along the way?

A. Financial sacrifices and time with family, mainly. I've been paying my way since freshman year in ’97, so I've worked many hours at second and third jobs to make this a reality. That means less time with family and friends and fewer hobbies. The challenge will be to rediscover me and my own hobbies once I finish this year. 

Kate Contini selfie in field of sunflowers


Q. Have you realized tangible benefits from your degrees, or do you just have a passion for learning? Or both?

A. BOTH. As a public-school teacher, as I took more classes, I moved along the pay scale of the teacher's salary quite quickly. I also have been given the opportunity to teach graduate courses as an adjunct at Lesley. However, my main reason to keep going back is a passion for learning, a desire to be the best teacher I can be and an opportunity to pay it forward with future teachers. I want to show Lesley students they matter! I want to be there for them the way those aforementioned have been there for me!

Q. What advice would you give to someone pursuing degrees at various levels, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate?

A. I would say to be sure you are passionate about what you are signing up for. Grad school and teaching are not for the faint of heart. There'll be days you do NOT want to do it anymore! That happened more to me during my dissertation more than I would like to admit, but it is true.

The thing that kept pushing me through was knowing I wasn't just doing it for me: more importantly, I was doing it for my students. My many, many, many former sixth graders were in my heart as I wrote about the 10 participants who so willingly were a part of this dissertation process. When I didn't want to keep writing, I just thought about the sixth graders I was writing for, and that kept me going. Do it, not for the piece of paper on the wall or the fancy getup at Commencement (Thank goodness that was not my only motivation! lol). Do it because it is a passion project.

Q. What was the most surprising thing about your academic journey?

A. I think what is most surprising is still how MUCH I need to learn. I'm not surprised by my love for Lesley and how sad I am to be finishing this doctoral program. I'm not surprised by how connected I feel to the faculty and other students in my cohorts. I am surprised by the fact that I feel like I'm still not done. Granted, financially, I need to be done for a bit, but I still know Lesley has so much to offer and I could learn so much by continuing to be a student there. I don't think I'm ready to not be a Lesley graduate student.

Q. What did your experience at Lesley teach you about teaching?

A. Teaching is a work of heart. Lesley taught me that, and my middle-school students continue to re-teach me that every day.