Unexpected diagnosis couldn’t keep education grad from earning Ph.D.

Elizabeth Aguila

Life has a tendency to throw unexpected curveballs. Elizabeth Aguila’s curveball came with a terrible headache — and at a time when her life was in a good place.

Aguila was in her mid-20s, married and the mother of two young children. She’d completed her master’s degree in Exceptional Student Education (ESE) at FIU and was working as an ESE teacher.

That terrible headache turned into other more excruciating headaches. Her doctor ordered an MRI. Lesions were discovered on her brain. The diagnoses — multiple sclerosis.

Different prescription medications with different side effects became a part of Aguila’s new reality. Stress can trigger MS, causing the disease to worsen and progress, so she was forced to narrow down her list of what she could not or should not do anymore.

Her hopes of getting a doctoral degree now seemed impossible. A conversation with Judith Cohen changed her mind. The director of FIU’s Office of Clinical Experiences in the School of Education and Human Development simply asked, “How do you feel today?”

Aguila felt good. Cohen told her to imagine she had more days where she felt good and could work toward her goals. Then, Aguila met with FIU Professor of Adult Education Thomas Reio, who told her time would pass anyway. She would either spend it working toward changing her future for the better — or not. She realized they were both right.  

Aguila knew she could do it. With the support of her family, friends and mentors at FIU, Aguila pursued her Ph.D. She started small, taking one class as a non-degree seeking student before fully committing.

Along the way, she remembered Cohen’s wise words. On those days she didn’t feel well, she didn’t work on her dissertation. On the good days, she did. The chair of Aguila’s Ph.D. committee — FIU Associate Professor of Teaching and Learning Joyce Fine — was also there to provide guidance and words of encouragement.

Aguila says the hardest part of her journey was fighting the invisible monster inside of her — doubt.

Elizabeth with panther statue

She did fight it off, though, finishing her 180-page dissertation in two and a half months. This spring, she earned a Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning — making her a three-time FIU graduate.

Aguila’s dissertation focused on how high school teacher preparatory programs affect teacher identity — or how students see themselves as teachers. Her research found practicing teaching leads to a strong teacher identity, and to the motivation to want to become a teacher.

This is something Aguila knows well.  

At Hialeah Gardens High School, Aguila founded an Academy of Education that prepares high school students for careers in education through the unique, hands-on experience of working with children at an on-campus preschool.

Growing up, Aguila never thought she’d be a teacher. She felt lost and didn’t know what she wanted to do. In college, she worked three jobs, but didn’t feel any closer to a career. A friend had a job working at an elementary school aftercare, and told her there was an open position. She jumped on the opportunity. Aguila found herself caring if the students were doing their homework, and more importantly, learning. This was Aguila’s first teaching experience. Practicing being a teacher changed everything and made her realize she wanted to be a teacher herself.

Now, Aguila and her co-teacher, FIU alumna Jeselie Martinez, give high school students this same opportunity. Students create lesson plans, then teach their lessons to the class. Sometimes, they do great. Sometimes, they don’t. It’s all a part of the learning process. By the time they graduate, they receive dual enrollment credits, as well as state and national teaching certifications.

*Photo taken prior to COVID-19*

The preschool is the heart of the Academy, but only exists today because of Aguila’s determination. It opened in 2013 without a budget. Furniture came from other recently closed early childhood education programs and on-campus preschools. Toys and books were donated. The first real purchase was a rug — the iconic, customary pre-school circle-time rug. It cost $575.

“It was the most expensive rug of my life. I made someone take a photo of me sitting on it,” Aguila said. “The day it came, the room finally looked like an actual preschool. You can’t have a preschool without a rug like that.”

The Academy has grown beyond the rug. Under Aguila’s leadership, it’s National Academy Foundation (NAF) distinguished.

“This only happened because Jeselie and I are an amazing team. If it was only me, I couldn’t have done this,” Aguila said.

For Aguila, one of the most special parts of her journey is watching her high school students go on to be teachers. Some of them have even crossed her path again, taking the class Aguila teaches at FIU.

“That’s the most incredible thing and makes me emotional — to have my students taking college level courses with me,” Aguila said. “They have watched me say I am going to do things — and do them. They watched me say I was going to open a pre-school — and they saw me do it. They heard me say I would do my doctorate, and then do it. They have all been a part of my dream — and it’s crazy to me.”

Aguila isn’t certain what’s next, but dreams of working at a university and continuing to do research.

The one thing she knows for certain is anything is possible.

“No one was telling me I couldn’t do it. I was telling myself I couldn’t do. But, with perseverance and drive, you can make anything happen,” Aguila said. “Don’t let anyone say you can’t do something — not even yourself.”