KU News Release

May 18, 2011
Contact: Jill Jess, University Relations, 785-864-8858

Graduation stories: Earning a doctorate included hefty commute for Wendy Herd

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LAWRENCE — For four years, Wendy Herd commuted 400 miles roundtrip twice a week from her Springfield, Mo., home to the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence to earn both a master’s degree and a doctorate in linguistics.

During the seven years needed to complete the two degrees, Herd continued to teach middle school, work as a teaching assistant at KU and help her husband, Zac, raise their daughter, Breanna, now 10. Last October, as she began writing her dissertation, she gave birth to their second child, Jacob.

Wendy Herd (photo by David McKinney/University Relations)

Her husband, daughter and son will be among the growing list of relatives (17 at last count) planning to attend KU’s Commencement ceremony May 22 to see Herd receive her doctorate. The party will include her parents, Donna and John Mooningham of Thomasville, Mo.; and brother John Paul Mooningham and sister Jill Mooningham, both of Springfield.

Her daughter may cheer the loudest for her mom’s graduation.

The past seven years went more quickly for Herd than for her daughter, who asked more than once, “Mommy, when will you be done with school?” Consequently, Herd acknowledged in her dissertation the sacrifice of family time required of pursuing a doctorate.

She recalled learning that her daughter wanted to be a scientist or a teacher. When Herd suggested her daughter could be both, Breanna replied that if she must be in school as long as her mother has been she won’t do both. Herd responded, “If you pick something you really are interested in, it won’t seem that long.”

Herd was in her second year as a doctoral student when she and her husband moved to Lawrence, where she continued to work as a teaching assistant in linguistics and a middle school teacher. Although the twice-a-week commute had ended, the dissertation research was beginning. For the better part of two years, Herd spent weekends on campus from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. administering tests and training tasks for her research.

In addition to being a teacher of Spanish, French and English as a second language, Herd is a linguist. Discovering how to help others learn a language is what attracted Herd to linguistics. Her dissertation focused on learning how students studying Spanish perceive certain sounds. She received a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant to fund her research.

As a teacher, Herd observed that her students learning Spanish had difficulty producing certain sounds correctly, including the trilled “r,” which some of her students complained that they would never be able to do correctly.

“Many wouldn't even try,” she said. “I was convinced that seeing a trill on a spectrogram and waveform would help them make improvement.”

She created and tested training programs to help people learning Spanish to hear and pronounce subtle differences in some consonants and to learn to trill an “r.”

“In general, people find the trill the hardest to learn,” Herd said. “My studies show that with training it’s possible to learn it.”

She documented a more than 10 percent improvement in Spanish students’ pronunciation of the trill.

This summer, she and her husband will move their family to Mississippi State University in Starkville, where Herd has accepted a tenure-track position in the English department.

Though no one in her immediate family has earned a doctorate, “getting a Ph.D. has been my goal as early as I can remember,” Herd said. “I was successful at school and higher education seemed natural progression.”

In high school, she had envisioned a doctorate in English but had also thought about law school. She earned a Missouri Bright Flight Scholarship, a merit-based scholarship offered to that state’s top-ranked high school graduates to attend an in-state university.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in French and English at the University of Missouri in Columbia and a master’s degree in English from Missouri State University in Springfield, Herd taught languages. Her teaching experiences led her to graduate programs in linguistics at KU. She completed a master’s degree in 2007.

For the past two years, Herd has taught English as a second language at Lawrence’s South Junior High School. Previously, she taught at Turner Middle School in Kansas City, Kan., and Jarrett Middle School in Springfield, Mo.

Throughout the four years of commuting to KU, Herd traveled with a mobile phone. She had only one flat tire, one car breakdown (lost a timing belt) as she was leaving Lawrence to return to Springfield and only missed one class because of driving conditions.

Today, she hates to drive — even traveling from her home east of Wakarusa Drive to shops along Iowa Street seems like a long drive.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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