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Groundbreaking:
How One PhD Defended His Dissertation Despite an Earthquake

Written by Judy Tierney

As a part-time teacher and full-time employee, finding a university program that could be adapted to his busy schedule was critical for Hari Dhungana. So when two fellow Mercer University professors, graduates of Northcentral University, told him about the school’s unique flexibility and one-to-one mentoring approach, he decided to find out more.

Hari Dhungana (PhD, Education)

A lifelong learner, Hari Dhungana had already earned an undergraduate degree from Michigan University, a Master of Education in Human Resources Development from Georgia State University, and a Master of Information Systems Management from the University of Phoenix. With encouragement from an NCU counselor and financial assistance for serving as a government employee in Georgia’s Department of Labor Rehabilitation Services, Dhungana enrolled in NCU’s School of Education. Completing the coursework and comprehensive exam to qualify for doctoral studies were no problem for the self-motivated Dhungana. But then he encountered a series of unfortunate challenges.

A serious automobile accident required Dhungana to take some time off from the program. And the full-time chair he had been working with for more than one year unexpectedly resigned. After being reassigned to a new chair, and still suffering from his injuries, Dhungana decided to take a break from his studies to visit his native Nepal and wrote a letter to the University asking that they drop him from the program. He travelled through a remote part of the country with no Internet access, and checked in at an Internet café in Kathmandu one month later to find numerous emails from his NCU advisor and chair concerned about his separation from the program.

Upon his return, Dhungana’s advisor connected him with Dr. Melanie Shaw who encouraged him to take part in a new NCU program that would allow him to complete his studies within a year. Dhungana agreed and returned to the University to complete all of the doctoral degree requirements by the middle of 2015.

Dr. Shaw assigned Dhungana a new chair. “Dr. Andrew Carpenter was wonderful,” said Dhungana. “I worked on a schedule to meet all of the deadlines – including my data collection, survey, analyses and all of my assignments – and Dr. Carpenter approved everything with only minor suggestions and revisions.”

With a renewed sense of energy and optimism, Dhungana immersed himself in the program, but it was not long before another obstacle surfaced. Dhungana had contacted several universities requesting that he be able to collect data for his survey. Citing confidentiality reasons, they told him that he could not contact their students for his research.

Dhungana petitioned Mercer University on the grounds that as an employee he should be able to reach out to students there. The university agreed, but he was only able to gather approximately half of the 150 complete responses that were required to make his data collection valid.

Putting his resourcefulness to work again, Dhungana contacted South University where he had taught online courses a few years prior. His request was granted, and by combining the data from the two universities, he collected sufficient information to conduct his analyses and obtain results.

“It was very exciting to complete the program in my own country after seven years of struggles, obstacles and frustrations and to be able to share with my own family that I am now a doctor. I have my PhD.”

Hari Dhungana at the 2015 NCU Commencement with daughter Tara and wife Rebecca

With the end in sight, Dhungana submitted his results to Dr. Carpenter, Dr. Shaw and Dean Heather Frederick for final approval. He was now ready to defend his dissertation on May 4, 2015.

As the deadline approached, Dhungana received word of a family emergency that would require him to return to Nepal. During his flight on April 25, a catastrophic 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal and closed the airport. Dhungana’s flight was rerouted, but he arrived the next day to find most of the area without power. Dhungana taxied over damaged roads to his brother’s house. The home had endured a significant crack. Although no one in his family was injured, some were living outside, in tents or in temporary shelters.

Between assisting friends and relatives, and with the defense deadline looming, Dhungana located a travel agency with a back-up generator. The business owners agreed to allow him to defend his dissertation from their office. So, on May 4, at 10:45 p.m. local time, Dhungana established a connection with Dr. Shaw, Dr. Carpenter and Dr. Frederick, who were linked in from three different states, to make his presentation. Within 45 minutes he was able to present and answer all of their questions.

Moments later, they called him back with the great news. “Congratulations, Dr. Dhungana,” he heard from halfway around the world.

“It was very exciting to complete the program in my own country after seven years of struggles, obstacles and frustrations,” Dhungana said, “and to be able to share with my own family that I am now a doctor. I have my PhD.”

Dhungana attributes his success at NCU to his own determination and ambition, as well as to the relationships with his professors and mentors. “Online programs are difficult because there are no lectures, no discussions. It takes a lot of discipline,” he said. “I had the goal to complete this journey to set an example for my family.”

With his Doctor of Philosophy in Education complete, Dhungana is taking some time off to be with those who matter most – his wife, children and grandchildren who all live in the Atlanta area. Between a temporary job as an interpreter for Nepalese refugees and writing his memoir focusing on education, he enjoys babysitting and playing with the grandkids. For the long-term, he hopes to teach others and is applying for university teaching positions.

Reflecting on the program, Dhungana offered some advice for prospective students. “Select the school that has the most flexible program, provides individual attention and one-to-one teaching. NCU offers a supportive staff, professors, and advisors, and with no residency requirements, people can pursue their degree from anywhere, any time.”

Dhungana hopes that one day his grandchildren will follow in his footsteps.