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Eileen Galang recently earned a doctorate from the University of Tennessee.

According to the United States Census Bureau, only about 3 percent of American adults have a doctorate or professional degree such as law or medicine.

Why? Because it's brutally difficult to get one, that's why.

For many, those advanced degrees are a tribute as much to their perseverance as to their academic prowess. A lot of life happens while you're pursuing that parchment.

For Eileen Galang, 38, of Rome, Ga., getting a doctorate from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville last week in literacy studies was the culmination of years of fits and starts. Galang is an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher at West Central Elementary School in Rome, Ga., where about a quarter of the school's 750 students were born into Spanish-speaking homes.

Her dream was to improve her education so she could be a better teacher and help her students lead more productive lives. Most are the U.S.-born children of Hispanic immigrants: restaurant employees, manufacturing plant workers and garment makers.

"They [ESOL students] do what we call 'double the work,'" Galang explains. "They are not only learning the content, they are also learning the language."

Galang is the daughter of Filipino immigrants. She was reared in a family that valued education as a way to assimilate into American culture. Her father was in the U.S. Navy, and so she had a nomadic childhood.

When the bug bit her to return to school to pursue a doctorate, Galang searched for just the right degree program. When she learned the University of Tennessee offered a program in ESOL, it seemed to be a perfect fit. Her sister, Everly, lived just down the road in Maryville, Tenn., and having family nearby seemed ideal.

In 2007, Galang entered the doctoral program at UT, even though it meant moving to Knoxville and being separated from her husband, Kris, whose job kept him in Georgia. Galang was in her third year of doctoral studies, preparing for comprehensive exams, when she discovered that her sister had Stage 3 breast cancer. Eileen immediately threw herself into the job of helping her sibling.

"Everyone in our family pulled together," Eileen said. "But I lived the closest to her, so I helped her with whatever she needed."

After a 15-month fight that included a double mastectomy and radiation treatments, Everly died in 2011.

Before she did, Eileen promised to stay in the Maryville area for a year to help watch over Everly's son, who was a senior in high school.

Eventually, Galang moved to Rome, Ga., to reunite with her husband, and she found a job in the school system there. Time passed, and she felt the urge to complete her doctoral studies. Working with UT, she was able to complete her dissertation remotely.

On Saturday, she experienced her long-delayed graduation ceremony in Knoxville.

"It was a bittersweet moment," she says, explaining that her deceased sister was constantly on her mind.

Galang said her parents came up from Mississippi for the ceremony. In a way, she said, she saw her graduation as the ultimate fulfillment of their dream.

"I felt like my parents came to the United States to have the American dream," she says. "Education has always been the key to our success, and now I've earned my Ph.D."

To pass that value and work ethic on to the children of a new generation of immigrants is a precious calling.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST.

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