A woman of vision: Strengthening her mind, body and spirit helped Ericka Watson handle hardships during her doctoral journey
Writing the vision
When Ericka Watson was a senior at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, she wrote her goals in her memory book. They included having a family, doctorate and rewarding career. Four years later, Watson married, began studying vocal music education at Wayne State and started checking boxes off her list.
At the advice of an aunt, Watson changed her major to elementary education. In 2006, she became the first college graduate in her immediate family.
Watson began teaching in the Highland Park Schools. Her first week, she noticed three students did not have individualized education programs, and there was no resource teacher. She returned to Wayne State to begin graduate studies in special education and served as a resource teacher for five years before becoming principal at Wolverine Academy in Detroit.
In June 2014, Watson and her husband adopted a newborn; they were also adopting a four-month-old. Her goals were coming to fruition, and she never anticipated how life might disrupt her plans.
Four months later, Watson’s husband had a massive stroke.
“That changed everything,” she said.
The four-month-old baby they were adopting was returned to his biological mother. Her husband started dialysis. Over the next three years, his condition worsened. Watson made the difficult decision to put him in a nursing home.
In addition to experiencing physical challenges, her husband became emotionally abusive. Even so, Watson took their daughter to the nursing home daily. Her situation began affecting her health.
“I was not sleeping, and I was depressed,” she said. “I was also concerned about my daughter.”
Despite her personal challenges, Watson was thriving professionally. She served as principal at Life Skills Center of Pontiac before accepting the position as director of special education at the Pontiac Academy of Excellence. In 2017, she was named director of specialized student services for Oak Park Schools and set her sights on becoming a superintendent.
Before applying to the doctoral program in educational leadership and policy studies, she consulted Wayne State alumna Daveda Colbert, currently the superintendent of Wayne RESA.
“Dr. Colbert hired me when she was superintendent of Oak Parks Schools,” Watson said. “She encouraged me to get my doctorate.”
Watson was excited about the conversations and camaraderie she shared with her new classmates, but she was conflicted about her commitment to her husband. Nursing home staff wondered why she continued to care for him when he treated her so poorly. One day, an older woman approached her.
“She said, ‘when part of the body is no longer working or gets infected, what happens to it? They cut it off,” Watson said.
The following week, she discovered her husband had withdrawn all the money from their 401K. The woman was right.
“I was struggling to make ends meet because I was paying for his care, and he was making choices that could harm me and my daughter financially,” she said. “My marriage was not healthy, and I needed to do what was best for the two of us.”
Watson got an expedited divorce in 2018. She asked her ex-husband who he wanted to assume responsibility for his care and affairs. No one in his family was willing, and he wanted her to continue serving as his power of attorney. Watson agreed, and she and her daughter continued visiting daily until he died in January 2020.
Watson could now focus on her daughter and doctorate. However, juggling multiple roles and responsibilities for years caught up with her. She experienced health challenges and underwent three surgeries in four years.
Hindsight is 20/20
Watson was devastated when her cohort graduated without her in May 2020.
“In my black and white mind, I was supposed to achieve my goals according to my schedule,” she said. “I learned that God is the ultimate planner.”
Classmates, family, friends and faculty members — including Professor Carolyn Shields — encouraged Watson to keep going.
“When I told Dr. Shields I was ready to graduate, she told me earning my doctorate was a process, and it wasn’t a question of whether I would finish, but a matter of when — even if we had to request an extension.”
Watson said she and Shields connected over her dissertation topic — which focused on school leadership and the role it plays in the inequitable discipline of African American students — because they are both passionate about it.
Writing her dissertation became part of her healing process. Her mother and a few close friends took turns watching her daughter, bringing her meals and giving her tough love so she could finish.
“They made me realize I have much to be thankful for,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t think I would have made it.”
A new vision
Last year, Watson accepted a new position as director of special education in the Royal Oak Schools. She said she is the first African American to serve in this role.
Watson arises daily at 3:15 a.m. to pray, meditate and exercise. She said starting this routine and therapy when her ex-husband was ill helped her manage adversity.
“I protect my peace at all costs,” she said. “When I am in difficult situations, God helps me present myself from a place of love and see love and light in others. I try to remain positive. I surround myself with good people. I believe good energy follows you, so I always try to leave a place better than it was when I found it.”
Watson has more goals to accomplish. She still wants to be a superintendent. She also wants to conduct research, write a book, open a school, and teach at a university. But she no longer gets discouraged when her dreams are delayed or derailed.
“What’s next?” she asked. “We have to wait and see what God has planned.”