Life’s Challenges Didn’t Derail This Ph.D. Student

Photograph of Ph.D. Student Monique Domingo
Ph.D. student Monique Domingo (Nathan Oldham / UConn School of Business)

When she began pursuing her Ph.D., Monique Domingo was familiar with the statistics. At the time, approximately one third of LatinX/Hispanic graduate-school candidates dropped out before completing their degrees, due to a host of issues from finances to academic fit.

Domingo, a first-generation American whose heritage is Mexican and Filipino, said she entered the UConn program determined to complete her Ph.D. in management, not only for herself, but also for those who follow in her footsteps.

“I saw that statistic as motivation to keep working hard,” she said.

That resolve was tested last year in an unthinkable way when she experienced a life-threatening family crisis. Although she prefers to keep the details private, Domingo said it shook her to her core.

“Family is the most important value in my life,” said Domingo, now in the third year of the five-year Ph.D. program. “Suddenly I found myself forced to make a tough decision. Do I go home and try to save the people I care about, and risk not completing the program that means so much to me?”

Consider a Ph.D. Program? ‘That’s Ridiculous’

Growing up in California, Domingo never envisioned herself becoming a professor. She had planned a career in retail leadership.

As a student at San Francisco State University, where she majored in business administration, management professor Eric Lamm asked her if she would consider becoming a teaching assistant. “I ended up loving it!” she said. “I taught a class and thought it was so exciting, and I enjoyed watching others learn, too.”

When he suggested Domingo attend graduate school, she laughed.

“That’s ridiculous. I can’t afford that!” said Domingo, who worked full-time while attending college. Her professor introduced her to the Ph.D. Project, an initiative to advance diversity in the workplace by increasing diversity in business school faculty, specifically Black/African-Americans, LatinX/Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans. There she found the encouragement she needed to pursue her next degree.

Domingo said she sought programs that matched her interest in exploring teams and leadership, but also looked for people that she would enjoy working with. At a graduate college fair, she met Ph.D. program director Nancy Crouch.

“Nancy’s energy and genuine passion for students’ success que-ed me right in that UConn was a place I should consider,” she said. She spent the next year working, studying and weighing her options. “By the end of the whole journey, I knew UConn was my top choice. I knew that’s where I was supposed to be.”

Domingo became interested in organizational behavior through her own experiences working for an import/export company and at a bank. She would develop business insight from her mother, a small business owner, and her father, a director in the hospitality industry.

“I saw how leadership, especially as a woman leader, can influence different outcomes at work,” Domingo said. “Those experiences made me more curious about women in leadership and teams.”
Although she hasn’t identified the exact focus of her dissertation, she has several potential paths.

“I’m especially interested in how leadership is a system of effectiveness in teams and how different events, especially those characterized by high stress, can disrupt the system,” she said. “I’m also interested in how leaders, especially women leaders, emerge and respond to such events.”

Poise Under Pressure

Domingo’s Ph.D. adviser, management professor John Mathieu, said Domingo has the traits that have served other doctoral students well.

“Monique has a great combination of attributes that will take her far in this business. First, she has poise under pressure. Her ability to stay focused on what is important, and communicate effectively with whomever she is interacting with, are key skills for an academic,” he said.

“Second, she has grit. Academics, especially the research and publishing aspects, are a demanding and competitive business. It takes endurance and perseverance to take a research project from an initial idea, through execution, to ultimate acceptance in our leading outlets,” he said. “And grit is a key attribute of successful scholars.”

Domingo said she developed a toughness when, at age 12, she was diagnosed with scoliosis and had to undergo spinal surgery. Afterward, Domingo, who had been an athlete competing in track events, had to learn to sit, walk, and run all over again.

“Recovering from spinal surgery was tough; it took me roughly six months or so to learn how to get back on my feet and run again,” she said. “Throughout the process, there were several moments when I felt discouraged and frustrated, including times when I literally fell over and had to get back up again. I worked hard to be fully functioning again.”

“What helped me, and what still helps me get through tough times, is the support I receive and the inspiring work ethic I learn from my loved ones,” she said.

For This Future Educator: A Lesson in Compassion

As soon as she got word of her family’s crisis, Domingo was on the next plane to California. Fortunately, she was able to find help for her loved ones quickly, and was able to quickly return to Connecticut to continue her degree.

“This program means so much to me. I didn’t want to give up,” she said. Although the immediate crisis has passed, there are still days that are difficult.

“Sometimes it is very hard to focus on work. It can be overwhelming,” she said. “Things are much better, the event passed, but isn’t completely resolved. There are still days that are emotionally exhausting. We’re human. We have emotions. That’s the sign of resilience–persevering and meeting goals and getting up and trying again. From this experience, I learned a great deal about the importance of your own wellbeing, and about learning how to cope with life’s challenges.”

She has refocused her life to ensure she prioritizes her mental and physical health. Domingo works out every day and schedules days off, something she rarely did in the past.

Domingo was one of 10 UConn students who was recently awarded the new Dr. Radenka Maric Graduate Fellowship. In addition to receiving a scholarship, Domingo will be part of a cohort of graduate and Ph.D. students looking for networking connections and social, roundtable and professional development.

“I have a great cohort in the business department,” Domingo said. “But what excited me is that now, I have more access to another great cohort that is also coping with similar personal hardship. Being able to relate to their experiences and give and receive support from them is valuable.”

The experiences she’s had balancing personal hardship and academic demands have already made her a better instructor, Domingo said.

When she notices a student who appears to be struggling—consistently arriving to class late, for instance—she always reaches out to make sure everything is OK and to offer resources if the student needs any type of help.

“As a future professor, I’m more empathetic,” she said. “I won’t ‘buy’ excessive excuses. But this is real life and people experience different critical events. With my students, I think about them, their family and their well-being, and try my best to support and guide them to achieve their goals.”