TSU grad student receives doctoral degree after 17 years, credits having ‘grit’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – When Seliene Munroe Bignall decided to write her doctoral dissertation on the concept of “grit”, she probably didn’t realize how true to life her journey would be. After nearly 20 years to get her degree, Bignall was among the hundreds of Tennessee State University graduates honored in a 2020 Virtual Commencement on Aug. 1.

“I feel very, very blessed to be completing my doctoral studies,” said Bignall, who is getting her doctorate in education administration. “It has really been a long journey.”

Seliene Bignall

Bignall worked as a campus crime prevention counselor at TSU for almost 10 years. She started her doctoral program in TSU’s Department of Educational Leadership in 2003, taking night classes at TSU and a couple of classes during the summer. But she decided to take a break in 2010 because she felt she was neglecting her family, particularly her daughter, who was about to be a junior in high school.

“One night I came home and she stayed up for me,” recalled Bignall. “She said, ‘mom, I don’t get to see you at all anymore.’ It broke my heart. The next day I went in to see my advisor and I told her I am going to take a break. I will always need my child, way more than I will need an advanced degree.”

After a few years, Bignall returned to TSU and continued to pursue her degree. She says she decided to make “grit” the topic of her dissertation after watching her husband, Dr. Orville Bignall, a physics professor at TSU, encourage his students to complete their degrees – to not give up.

“I saw how my husband nurtured students, and encouraged them to finish,” said Seliene Bignall, adding that her husband was a motivating factor in her doctoral completion. “Many of them don’t.”

So, she decided to focus on what it takes for African American students in particular to qualify and complete programs, like Engineering, and she chose the concept of grit, or perseverance.

Dr. Samantha Morgan-Curtis is chair of TSU’s Department of Languages, Literature and Philosophy. She said Seliene Bignall, who is currently a counselor at a Nashville elementary school, is living justification of her dissertation topic.

Seliene Bignall and her husband, Dr. Orville Bignall. (Submitted photo)

“Seliene didn’t need the textbook definition because she defines grit every day,” said Morgan-Curtis. “I firmly believe that it took her so long to finish this degree because she puts herself last. Every day she gives to others: to her students, to her family, to the students who become her family. And it was only when she decided that the degree would allow her to do and be more and show the students that it could be done, that she took and made the time to complete the degree.”

Whether in college or aspiring to be, Bignall said she wants all students to know that they can be successful. And if they are doubtful, she will share her journey.

“And I will tell that person one word – grit. Never give up,” said Bignall.

TSU is a leader in helping educators pursue degrees in educational leadership. In June, the University received the other half of a $600,000 grant to train educators to become assistant principals in Middle Tennessee school districts.

Officials said the effort is part of a longstanding collaborative partnership between the university, the Department of Education and K-12 systems aimed at attracting more qualified applicants for positions in school leadership.

“Tennessee State University is taking the lead in the state’s assistant principal training program, as a further recognition of the quality of our programs,” said Dr. Jerri Haynes, dean of the College of Education. “Through this program we are helping to fill the void or shortage of assistant principals, especially minorities.”

To learn more about TSU’s Educational Leadership program, visit https://bit.ly/2DfCiNq.

Department of Media Relations

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About Tennessee State University

Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a  premier, historically black university and land-grant institution offering 39 bachelor’s degree programs, 24 master’s degree programs, and seven doctoral degrees.  TSU is a comprehensive research intensive institution with a R-2 Carnegie designation, and has a graduate school on its downtown Avon Williams Campus, along with the Otis Floyd Nursery Research Center in McMinnville, Tennessee.  With a commitment to excellence, Tennessee State University provides students  with a quality education in a nurturing and innovative environment that prepares them as alumni to be global leaders in every facet of society. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.