Demers Family

Family time -- Denise Demers will graduate with a doctoral degree in health education during commencement exercises at Southern Illinois University Carbondale on Saturday, May, 10.  Enjoying family time together are, left to right:  Jordan, 16, Kelsey, 11, Scott, Cody, 9, Denise and Spencer, 13.   (Photo provided)

May 05, 2014

Demers juggles family, school to reach goal

by Christi Mathis

Denise DemersCARBONDALE, Ill.  -- The double life Denise Demers has been leading for the last four years will come to an end Saturday, May 10, when the Effingham woman earns her doctoral degree during commencement exercises at SIU Carbondale. 

For a part of each week since fall 2010, Demers has lived the life of a busy student; living in Carbondale, working as a graduate teaching assistant at SIU and completing her doctorate in health education.  The rest of the week Demers is in Effingham, more than two hours away.  There, she is a wife, mom to four busy children and an adjunct faculty member at Lake Land College in Mattoon.  She also is very active in her church, works out regularly and enjoys reading.  

She has juggled her many hats very carefully to give all she can to her schoolwork and jobs while being with her family and attending their activities as much as she could.  She very rarely missed class and didn’t miss too many youth games and events either.  Sometimes that meant multiple 250-mile round trips each week.

Demers’ work never suffered though, according to Kim Miller, associate professor of community health in the Department of Health Education and Recreation.  

“When I started working with Denise in 2011, I grew to understand all that she did to make this degree happen.  She is an excellent student, very dedicated, and devoted to her family and church life.  She has always gotten superior evaluations from her students for the classes she teaches at SIU, too.  In fact, she is one of the most popular teaching assistants we have here,” Miller said.  “She has managed to keep all of the balls in the air while staying very positive.” 

Demers said her strategy has been to fully commit to whatever she is doing at the moment.  When she began attending graduate school, she spent the night with friends in town, but through friends at her church, soon found a woman in Murphysboro who gave her a place to stay.  While working on her dissertation and preparing for exams, Demers would say in Southern Illinois Monday through Friday and return home on weekends only.  

“When I’m living my school life, I’m a crazy woman.  I start working early in the morning and work until 10 or 11 or later at night to try to get everything done.  Then when I’m at home, I fully commit to my family and responsibilities there.  I would still have homework to do there and all, but we are all busy.  We just figure out how to do it.  Sometimes that means the house is dirty or I have to stay up late.  Sometimes that means there’s not much time for me,” Demers said. 

“I call it optionizing.  You have to be flexible, rob Peter to pay Paul, juggle the best you can,” she said.  “God is good.  I only missed two or three classes the entire time and I didn’t miss too many of my kids’ functions.  I’ve also worked very hard to maintain relationships because friendships with my girlfriends have helped me stay sane in this chaos.  Here’s my motto in life:  adapt, improvise and overcome.” 

Demers earned her bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1990 at Southern Utah University and after a church mission trip, completed her master’s degree in health and fitness management at Brigham Young University in 1996.  She married, moved to Nashville, Tenn., and worked as a fitness center manager and coach.   

She became a stay-at-home mom to three sons and a daughter.  For 10 years, her focus was on Jordan, 16, Spencer, 13, Kelsey, 11, and Cody, 9.  They are a close family, but as time went on, Demers began thinking of the future.  Her husband, Scott, has a disability and Demers returned to the workforce in 2008.  The children had never had a babysitter and Cody was just three at the time; Jordan was 10.  But, to assure her family is well provided for in the long term, Demers decided to obtain her doctorate.    

“It was a big shock but everyone has adjusted,” Demers recalls with a laugh.  Scott is a high school soccer coach, working part-time, and everyone has made adjustments to help her reach her goal.  She’s pushed herself, too.  

In fact, when Demers first discussed her timeline for completing her degree, Miller said it was unrealistic. 

“But, then she went ahead and did it anyway,” Miller said. 

“I think juggling, as a woman, is something you just do,” Demers said.  She is so convinced of that, that her doctoral dissertation is entitled: “I Am Captain of the Ship:  Mothers’ Experiences Balancing Graduate Education and Family Responsibilities.” 

Demers extensively interviewed about a dozen women like herself in researching her dissertation, and found everyone has their own version of the juggling story.  One interview via Skype was interrupted as a woman’s young child entered the room after taking off his clothes.  Both women laughed.  And the interview continued after the child was dressed. 

Demers is pursuing a faculty position in academia.  Miller has no doubt she’ll find a teaching job and do well, just as she has as captain of her “ship.”