College of Education

Special education major on fast track to Ph.D., career in academia


Olivia Durham has yet to earn her bachelor’s degree in special education, but her plans to move halfway across the country to pursue a doctoral degree are already set. Whereas others might see a bachelor’s degree-to-Ph.D. option in educational psychology at Texas A&M University as a bold leap, she only sees opportunity.

Durham is confident in her decision to pursue graduate education, and she credits that confidence to her time at the Clemson University College of Education, the research experience already under her belt and the guidance she has received from numerous College faculty members. Durham plans to take advantage of the bachelor’s degree-to-Ph.D. option so that she will waste no time in making the most significant impact possible on individuals with intellectual disabilities, their families and their transition from school to work.

“I decided after my sophomore year, when I got my first taste of real research through Creative Inquiry, that academia and research are what I wanted to do,” Durham said. “I saw the impact that these doctoral students were already making, so it was just a matter of figuring out the next steps to make it happen.”

Durham worked with doctoral student Mya Kelley and faculty member Shanna Hirsch on a project involving mixed reality simulation with special education students. She tackled another research project through Creative Inquiry involving culturally responsive teaching.

However, when picking the destination for her graduate studies, Durham said no one was more helpful or supportive than Antonis Katsiyannis, alumni distinguished professor of special education in the College of Education. Katsiyannis said that the Texas A&M program is a top-rated educational program in the nation that also aligns with Durham’s interest in transition and self-determination among students with intellectual disabilities.

Olivia Durham
Olivia Durham attends a workshop hosted by Teaching Fellows. Durham is part of the first graduating class in the program.

Durham will have the opportunity to work with Dr. Dan Zhang, a nationally recognized expert in transition and self-determination. After seeing her skills in academics and research, Katsiyannis did not doubt that Durham would not only qualify for the program but excel in it.

“Ms. Durham is a diligent student with a keen intellect and an unsurpassed enthusiasm for learning,” Katsiyannis said. “I was greatly impressed with her communication skills, work ethic through her academic performance and involvement in creative inquiry research projects.”

Katsiyannis also invited Durham to contribute to the introduction and rationale of a recently published journal article. The article, “School Shootings in the United States: 1997-2022,” was published in Pediatrics, a top-rated medical journal, and saw Durham working with both Katsiyannis and Luke Rapa, associate professor in the Department of Education and Human Development. Durham aided in writing the introduction and literature review as well as revising and editing the manuscript.

She said the writing process for the article was intimidating at first because it was her first experience in academic writing, and she was working with experts the field. However, those aspects ended up being the best parts of the process for her. The experience allowed her to strengthen her writing skills and work under the guidance of experts; it ultimately confirmed for her that a role in research was something she truly wanted.

Olivia Durham
Olivia Durham sits with a ClemsonLIFE student outside Cooper Library.

“I feel very passionately about the article’s topic, so it motivated me to do my best possible work,” Durham said. “I felt very encouraged and supported throughout it all, and in the end, I enjoyed it enough to want to continue it as a career.”

Durham has also been involved with both Teaching Fellows and the Clemson LIFE program. In Clemson LIFE, Durham has served as a mentor or volunteer since her first year as a Clemson student. During her final semester, despite the time commitment involved with student teaching at Central Academy of the Arts, Durham continues to help LIFE students with an upcoming talent show.

She said the LIFE program has allowed her to see firsthand the importance of post-secondary programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities. She hopes to combine lessoned learned as a mentor and volunteer with skills she will develop as a researcher to positively affect the transition from school to work and independent living for this population of students.

“Well-structured programs are important, but the support of parents and others during those important transitions in life make all the difference,” Durham said. “I am really excited to take all these experiences and grow that knowledge and expand on it going forward.”

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