Bits 'n' Pieces: 'Energizer Bunny' scholar goes and goes …

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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Donna Sinclair has never been one to let problems stop her in her continuing pursuit of knowledge.

The 49-year-old woman from Washougal has been beating the odds ever since she had open heart surgery as a 3-year-old in the procedure's very early days, said her mother, Jade Ward, who raised her as a single mom in the 1960s and 1970s.

Sinclair came through the surgery fine, and, despite the occasional setback, she really hasn't let anything slow her down in her lifelong quest toward a Ph.D., which she should complete this winter, Ward said.

On her path, Sinclair raised three children on her own and is now raising one of her grandchildren with her husband of five years, Bud Harris. She also managed to get bachelor's and master's degrees while working a full-time job as a transcriber, historian and history professor.

"She's always taken a few classes at a time, and she just persevered," Ward said. "She's done whatever it's taken. Her husband left when the kids were babies, and she didn't let that stop her. She's the 'Energizer Bunny.' She really is."

In recognition of her efforts, the Coordinating Council for Women in History on Jan. 4 presented Sinclair with the Catherine Prelinger Award in Washington, D.C. The award is a $20,000 grant that recognizes and supports the work of nontraditional women students who weren't able to follow an uninterrupted path from undergraduate to graduate studies.

"It was a very competitive award," Sinclair said. "I guess there were 47 applicants. To be at the top of that group, to have women scholars recognize what I've done, feels pretty good."

Sinclair is working on her doctorate in urban studies at Portland State University. She got an associate degree at Clark College in 1992 while waiting tables to make ends meet. After that, she got her bachelor's in social sciences from Washington State University Vancouver in 1996, and her master's in history at PSU in 2004, paying the bills by transcribing interviews at home at night and taking other freelance history work so she could spend time with her kids.

"It was hard for the kids growing up, because we really didn't have much money," Sinclair said. "They appreciate that now, but as pre-teens and teens, they didn't like it at all. That was hard. But I wanted to have a profession, not just a job."

She also teaches U.S. history, diversity and public history as an adjunct instructor at WSUV and at PSU. Money from the award will help her finish her doctorate — in which she's investigating the history of women and minorities in the Forest Service — and from there, possibly go to work as a full-time college professor, she said.

"My advice to others? Take it one day at a time," Sinclair said. "Find a good mentor. Ask people who are doing what you want to do, and ask them what it's like. And follow your passions and your heart in your work."


Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.