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From early college to Ph.D. program at 20: Meet Mackenzie Dobson

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This story, distributed as a press release by McDowell Technical Community College, caught my attention. It’s full of determination and hope. Please read and share.


For those who wonder whether you can get “there” from “here,” whether you can achieve greatness and success by attending a local community college—McDowell Tech, for example—Mackenzie Dobson is proof that you can.

This fall, at just 20 years of age, Mackenzie is entering a Ph.D. program in American Politics, Public Policy and Research Methodology at the University of Virginia, consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top graduate programs in Political Science by U.S. News and World Report and similar rating systems.

The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, directed by Dr. Larry Sabato, is particularly well-known for its non-partisan “Crystal Ball” website, which has a strong track record of predicting winners of presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections since its inception just prior to the 2002 presidential elections. Dobson will be working directly with Dr. Craig Volden, co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, a collaboration between the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University.

And she started her academic career in Marion at McDowell Technical Community College.

Mackenzie enrolled in McDowell Early College in August of 2015 at the start of her ninth grade in high school. Three years later, in May of 2018, she received both her high school diploma from McDowell Early College (aka, MEC) and her associate degree in college transfer from McDowell Technical Community College.

She went on to study at Appalachian State University, where she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science in May 2020 and her Master of Arts in Political Science with a concentration in American Politics, just over two months ago, in May 2021. Of the approximately 12-15 students who graduated from the M.A. program at Appalachian this year, she is the only one going on to a Ph.D. program this fall.

“Objectively, attending McDowell Early College and McDowell Tech before transferring to a four-year university helped me acclimate to the university setting much faster than students who attend a traditional high school before enrolling in college as a freshman,” said Dobson. “McDowell Tech and MEC have higher standards, overall, and an academic workload that is more like a traditional university. There is less coddling at the university level, and McDowell Tech prepared me well for that.”

“Secondly, McDowell Tech’s smaller size and the mentoring I received there allowed me, at an informal level, to approach my university professors with great confidence, both as a student and peer,” she said. Marilyn Jordan of the Early College and John Dillard were two of her greatest mentors at McDowell Tech.

Financially, attending McDowell Early College also saved Dobson and her parents, April and Jeremy Dobson, two years of college tuition and the cost of two years of room and board at an out-of-town university.

More importantly, Mackenzie says that the credits she earned at McDowell Tech also allowed her to begin taking graduate-level classes during her senior year at Appalachian, almost one year ahead of schedule.

But the “snowball effect” doesn’t end there. Entering the University of Virginia with a master’s degree in hand, she will be able to begin teaching undergraduate classes at the University of Virginia (UVA) when she begins the second year of her Ph.D. program. Students who enter graduate school at UVA without a master’s degree usually don’t start teaching undergraduate classes until their third year of graduate school.

For what would seem to most to be the best perk of all, Dobson will receive a “full-ride” at UVA, receiving free tuition and fees, free health insurance and a stipend that will more than cover her living expenses in Charlottesville, where the University is located.

To Dobson, however, what she likes most is how well her personal goals and interests align with the Political Science faculty in her field at UVA. “I have already begun cultivating relationships with faculty I will be working with, and their work, earmarked research projects, and working papers that are in the ‘pipeline’ almost seamlessly mesh with my own research interests,” she said.

Dobson’s career goal is to work as a research-oriented college professor, focusing more on publishing research than time in the classroom. Her most immediate goal as a graduate student is to get as many research publications as possible before finishing her Ph.D.

She has a great start on that goal from her time spent in the master’s program at Appalachian. Her M.A. thesis has been published by the university and will be under review for external publication in the near future. “Cost Coverage and Co-Insurance: How the States Compare and What Determines Caliber Care,” takes a deep dive into state employee health plans in all 50 states. It ranks in-network and out-of-network coverage on 10 dimensions of healthcare and three dimensions of cost, finding that Massachusetts provides the best overall health plan for their state employees and Louisiana, the worst. North Carolina ranked in the bottom 20% of the study.

She and one of her professors have also co-authored a working paper that will be out for review by the end of this year. It is both a time series and cross-sectional analysis of how “gender goods” have been taxed differently in all 50 states over the period from 1975 to 2020, and how that disparity has placed a financial burden on women over time.

Like many graduate students, she believes her biggest challenge going forward is to be aware of the “imposter syndrome” — believing and feeling that one is not as competent as others perceive them to be. “I have to remain mindful that I got here, and I’m capable of finishing,” she said.

Her family, she continued, has been “beyond supportive, both financially and emotionally. Being in graduate school during COVID has been particularly difficult, but they have been my greatest support, being there for me in my highest highs and my lowest lows. When I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, they have been there to remind me to stay the course, saying, ‘You’ve got this far. You can do it.’”

“Mackenzie is definitely no imposter,” said Dr. Brian S. Merritt, MTCC President. “I look forward to following her career — she has proven she is capable of great things, and the best is yet to come. We are thrilled MTCC played a role in her success.”

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.