Virginia Tech mother and son both earn Ph.D.s this spring
Sharon Stidham and her son, James, shared an apartment and encouraged each other’s work as they pursued their degrees.
Sharon Stidham, who received a Ph.D. in instructional design and technology from the School of Education, emerged from the north tunnel of Lane Stadium beaming and holding the Graduate School banner high as Virginia Tech's spring Graduate School Commencement ceremony began. As student marshal for the ceremony’s procession, she battled the afternoon breeze to keep the banner aloft while carrying her doctoral hood, and her smile never dimmed.
Her son, James Stidham, watched his mother with pride in the stands. James also earned a Ph.D. in condensed matter and material physics this spring. It is his third degree from the university, all of them in physics. He said he defended his dissertation too late to participate in commencement. Sharon Stidham defended her dissertation on March 21.
Neither anticipated that they would share this moment, earning Ph.D.s from the same university at the same time and living together as roommates in the process. Sharon said her son was the one who introduced her to Virginia Tech. James earned his bachelor’s degree in 2017 and his parents traveled from their home in Illinois to attend the ceremony. “He and I were walking around the campus, and I said to him, ‘This place is heaven.’ At that point, I had no plans to come here,” Sharon said.
But a stint as an adjunct professor at a community college sparked her decision to earn a doctoral degree. She said she was disillusioned and frustrated with her students’ math skills. She’d long been interested in game theory and the use of computer games to help students not only learn concepts, but enjoy the process and develop additional skills. After her experience teaching, “I wanted to design the best possible computer games for learning.”
That goal reignited an educational desire that had been on the back burner for Sharon. She had earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rider University in New Jersey and spent several years in marketing before turning to education and teaching. “I had an MBA, but I had always wanted a Ph.D.,” she said. Now she had a reason to pursue that goal.
After researching potential universities, she realized Virginia Tech had one of the best instructional design programs, so she applied, was accepted, and moved in with her son.
During her research, she learned that different scholars used different terms in their exploration and analysis of the state called “flow” that individuals playing video games may experience. Marc Wittmann in Psychology Today described flow as “a mental state characterized by deep absorption during challenging experiences,” and noted that flow can improve well-being and learning and decrease anxiety.
Sharon decided she wanted to create “a cheat sheet” to help people understand the different terms. Her dissertation, An Integrative Review of the Conceptualization and Assessment of the Learner Flow Experience in Digital Game-Based Learning Environment between 2011-2021, not only analyzed the existing research on the subject, it also created guides and a common vocabulary for future research, the cheat sheet she felt the field needed. Her advisor, Kathleen Cennamo, will co-author a book based on the results.
Sharon said she could not have done the work without James’ support. He helped her navigate the policies and procedures associated with scholarly research. James was a student of Michel Pleimling’s and a graduate research assistant in the Center for Soft Matter and Biological Physics. “James trained to be a researcher here,” she said. "I was not trained to be a researcher.”
James also helped her adjust her perspective as a student, to think more like a scholar and less like someone in pursuit of the highest grade point average in the class. “He was always saying, ‘Stop worrying about your grade. You’re spending 20 hours to get a super A rather than 12 to get an A.’” He also helped her place quizzes and assignment grades in perspective: “No one cares if you missed one point.”
The two developed a rhythm of conversations and encouragement. They would read each other’s research and papers and offer suggestions. She worked with him on style and punctuation. “I was the grammar police," she said. He pushed her to add citations and helped her understand the policies and procedures she needed to follow in her work. “You kept me honest,” Sharon said, looking at James.
James said living with his mother in Blacksburg was not much different than any other roommate experience. He said they focused on staying sane and pursued their interests. He played video games, and they also socialized with friends. Sharon also was active in the Graduate Student Assembly, now the Graduate and Professional Student Senate.
The most difficult time was during the pandemic. Sharon returned to Springfield, Illinois, during the initial phase of the pandemic. James remained in Blacksburg, but said, “The hardest part was getting cooped up in here.” They adopted a rescue cat for company, and learned to give each other space for Zoom sessions when Sharon returned to Blacksburg.
James celebrated another milestone in January 2020, when he married Samantha Spytek, whom he met during their first semester as first-year students in the physics department. They both earned master’s degrees, and she now teaches physics to high school students in Loudon County, Virginia.
With commencement behind them, the two are preparing for the next phase of their lives. They both note that their time as roommates is coming to an end. James will move to Northern Virginia to be with his wife. Sharon is pursuing several potential job leads.
Their apartment shows signs of the coming moves. Neatly stacked boxes line one wall of their living room and items waiting to be packed fill almost every surface. Through the windows across the other wall, one can see Lane Stadium, pastures dotted with cattle, a large barn, and in the far distance, hills.
Sharon stood at the windows for a moment. “That view kept me sane,” she said quietly. She had no idea during the days in which she took comfort from the view that she would one day be student marshal at her commencement as she, too, became a Hokie alum, like her son.