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Father and Son to March Together at Commencement

By Jim Raper

Back in 1997, Martin Smith-Rodden and his wife, Pam, had two small children, good jobs at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper and a home they owned on the water in Portsmouth. But something was missing, he says: He had no college degree.

So over the past 16 years he has taken as many college courses as his continued full-time employment at The Pilot would allow, and his older child, Wilson, has grown up. On Saturday, Dec. 14, both will march in commencement ceremonies at Old Dominion. The father will be awarded a Ph.D. in psychology and the son a bachelor's degree in business management.

Watching the commencement exercises at the Ted Constant Convocation Center will be Pam, who had a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri when they arrived in Hampton Roads in 1986, and daughter Katherine, a junior advertising major at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"Pam has often described her situation as having three kids in college," Martin says. "At this point, there's at least a year's worth of handy-person work that needs to be done around the old house in Portsmouth.

"I've stressed every relationship in my life doing this," Martin adds. "I am very quick not to recommend it to anyone working full time. I dedicated my dissertation to my family, but that was not enough, not nearly enough."

Martin enrolled at the University of Maryland out of high school, but admits, "We don't talk about that transcript." Still, he did develop his skills as a photographer to the point that he could get a job on the award-winning photography staff at The Pilot.

In 1997, he started taking a few courses at Virginia Wesleyan College, and by 2003 had earned a bachelor's in social sciences. Then he set his sights on psychology at ODU, and a very tough decade of juggling family, job and graduate school ensued.

Martin met his eventual ODU adviser, Associate Professor Ivan Ash, while he was enrolled in coursework that was required before he could become a master's student in psychology. He was accepted into the master's program in 2006 and into the applied experimental psychology program in 2008.

"I've been night photo editor at The Pilot since 2005, working approximately 1 to 10 or 11 p.m., and a lot of negotiating was required to get me through school, like getting someone to cover for me at work when I had a 3 p.m. class. They put up with me because they knew it wouldn't go on forever."

But when he earned a master's in experimental psychology in 2010 he kept going full speed ahead toward a Ph.D.

He has aimed his scholarly work and research at questions he has mulled as a photographer and photo editor: How does photojournalism affect the public's feelings about issues such as war and famine? And how graphic should media be in presenting photos of suffering and pathos? In the process, he found ways to measure the impact of images based on the emotional reaction of viewers.

"Ph.D.s are somewhat rare among working journalists, very rare among people in visual communication and photojournalism, and Ph.D.s in psychology are virtually unheard of in these groups," Martin says. "My hope is that as a veteran journalist leaving ODU with a Ph.D. as a cognitive scholar, and with research experience in media psychology, I might be positioned as something of a scholar-practitioner, or a hybrid specialist."

Son Wilson started out as a drawing major at ODU in 2009, but switched to business management. He lived on or near the campus during his college days and got used to seeing his father on and around ODU's Kaufman Mall.

"Seeing Wilson around campus as a fellow student is always a treat, a big, 6-foot-5 guy who always greeted his dad with a hug," Martin says. "We took time out most weeks to meet for a father-son dinner near ODU, to catch up with what's going on."

Wilson says that having three members of the Smith-Rodden clan in college at the same time only shows that "this family is intensely aware that college is necessary for personal development these days."

He says he intends to look for a job just now, perhaps with a nonprofit organization, "but I definitely want to go to graduate school."

Mother Pam is now the vice president of communications and marketing for the United Way of South Hampton Roads, and Wilson's career ambitions lean more toward her line of work. "I want to do something I like and can feel good about," he explains. One of his internships during college was with the Up Center in Norfolk, which assists Hampton Roads families experiencing crises.

Martin, meanwhile, is not exactly done with higher education. He will teach a psychology class next semester at Virginia Wesleyan and says he can see himself some day as a full-time college instructor.

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