Fall Doctoral Commencement Student Speaker Shares His Unconventional Journey To A Ph.D.
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. From preacher to teacher, through personal tragedy and out the other side, Weeks said when he earns his Ph.D. in history this week, he’ll be one step closer to his dream of becoming a history professor.
Weeks grew up in New Mexico, the son of Methodist missionaries to local Navajo people. He said he would have liked to attend a four-year institution but 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,” he said.
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 said 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, he said. Then he and his wife suffered the tragedies of a stillborn baby and a miscarriage within two years. Weeks said 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.
Weeks said he 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 Thomas Wagy.
“I walked into his office and told him I wanted his job,” Weeks said.
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.
A minor in English landed him 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 said.
He 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. Weeks applied and was admitted to Texas A&M University in 2014. He was 49.
Shortly after he turned 50, doctors found a large precancerous colon polyp that required immediate surgery. Weeks took incompletes for his spring 2015 classes and moved back to Texarkana for an arduous recovery process. He underwent three more surgeries over the next three years.
He 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.”
He returned to secondary education. “I was in a Ph.D. program and yet I’m teaching middle school English,” he lamented.
One of Weeks’ LinkedIn connections, a woman named Merritt Stamps Royal, 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 said he relished having an office at a college history department.
He also said he recognizes what a 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 said. “This isn’t a small thing.”
Having nearly lost his dream to illness made him a better student, Weeks said, 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 are 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,” said 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 said 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 said. “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 said he hopes his life story will demonstrate that he can do more for students than simply impart information. 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.”