While the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the once marginalized conversation of academia’s gendered imbalance of opportunity, discussion of its impact on graduate student mothers has remained absent. Resilience has been cited as key to overcoming in the pandemic era with little discussion of how its conceptualization continues to marginalize females in the academy. Our phenomenological study explores graduate student mothers’ conceptualizations of balance, failure, success, and resilience using a family resilience framework which acknowledges the multiple identities to which they may avow and contexts in which they may operate. Employing an ecological conceptual framework, we engaged nine graduate student mothers and their children in focus groups and analyzed data using a constructivist grounded theory approach. Our research found that many graduate student mothers’ definitions of success led them to delay qualifying exams and comps during the pandemic. Our exploration of the ecology of our participants’ resilience during quarantine begins the generation of a new graduate student mother resilience theory in which the ability to overcome adversity is rooted in celebration, gratitude, collaborative problem-solving, connection, and flexibility. We recommend continued development of this new theory and provide insight into the supports higher education can offer to address the leaky academic pipeline.


constructivist grounded theory, COVID19, graduate student mother, MotherScholar, phenomenology, resilience

Author Bio(s)

Dr. Carolyn Oldham completed her doctoral work at the University of Kentucky and now serves as the Director of Continuing Education at the Central Appalachian Regional Education and Research Center (CARERC), one of 18 university-based occupational safety and health training programs sponsored by NIOSH/CDC. Her qualitative and evaluative research focuses on cultural responsiveness in educational and health care sectors. Her current and past research has focused on evaluation, instrumentation, EL writing pedagogy, and practice, occupational safety, and health, as well as culturally and linguistically appropriate health care within Japanese sojourning and agricultural populations. She has taught English for over twenty years in preK-12 and university settings both domestically and abroad. In addition to research and teaching, she has held postsecondary administrative positions in accreditation, quality improvement and student affairs. She is a graduate of Northwestern University (M.S.Ed.) and Knox College (B.A.). Please direct correspondence to carolynoldham@uky.edu.

Dr. Kelly D. Bradley is a Professor and Chair of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation and Program Chair for Research Methods in Education in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky. Her research is anchored in evaluation and measurement, with a focus on survey research and the Rasch model. She has served as chair of American Educational Research Association (AERA) Survey Research SIG, program chair the AERA Rasch SIG, and chair of the Educational Statisticians AERA SIG. Dr. Bradley been recognized as an outstanding advisor by Midwest Educational Research Association (MWERA), and her students have gone on serve in prominent roles in state education, academia, measurement boards, and evaluation organizations. In the college, she has served as a faculty-mentor, student research group leader, chair of COE Faculty Council, chair of College Promotion, Reappointment, and Tenure committee, and interim-Director of Graduate Studies. Professor Bradley teaches quantitative methods, measurement, research writing, and statistics courses. She holds a Ph.D. in quantitative research, evaluation, and measurement from The Ohio State University an M.S. in statistics from the University of South Carolina, a B.S. in mathematics and sociology and a B.A. in mathematics education from Fairmont State College. Please direct correspondence to kelly.bradley@uky.edu.


First and foremost, we thank the MotherScholars and children who participated in this study, offering their time and voice during a pandemic which taxed their energies often beyond compare. We also thank our families and colleagues for their support of our MotherScholar identities. Lastly, we give gratitude to the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation within the University of Kentucky’s College of Education for their support of the MotherScholar and this research.

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https://orcid.org/ 0000-0003-2207-488X



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