The Dinner Table Community


For most families, the kitchen table is the center of the home—a place for everything from connecting over home-cooked meals to throwing the keys and mail after a long day. But for one family, the kitchen table is also a place of learning, growth, and a little healthy competition. Meet the Clarkes.

Brian and Katina Clarke, Air Force veterans and 2019 Walden graduates, have been married for more than 26 years. But if not for a fateful mishap on the softball field, they may have never met.
Both were stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. A few days before Brian was scheduled for a lengthy temporary-duty assignment in southwest Asia, he tore his Achilles tendon while rounding second base in a softball game.

With his deployment on hold, Brian remained on base and he and Katina had their first encounter: He was lovestruck; she was unimpressed. Brian decided to use his downtime to convince a reluctant Katina to go on one date. She was unsure, but eventually, she agreed. Just a year later, they married.

The playful (and sometimes competitive) dynamic the pair first formed during their time in the Air Force would characterize their relationship for years to come. Katina, who had started her Walden PhD in Psychology program, dared Brian to further his own education by pursuing a Doctor of Education (EdD) with a specialization in Special Education.

He wasn’t going to back down.

“One thing I really love about her,” Brian says, “is that she wants to stretch me and help me maximize my potential.”

The dares continued as they pushed themselves and each other to graduate, persisting through the most difficult academic challenge either of them had ever faced.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, outside of raising a teenager,” Katina laughs.

A New Understanding

As co-learning households around the world discovered over the past year, it can sometimes be difficult to make sure each person has the space and time needed to pursue individual goals. But cheering each other on becomes a little easier when sharing the experience. That may be even more true when the shared experience is as all-consuming as earning a doctorate.

“You can understand the commitment it takes on paper, but unless you’ve been through it, you really have no idea,” Katina says. “I didn’t until I was going through it myself,” Brian adds.

As the couple worked through their respective degree programs, they drew on each other for strength. “Our marriage was the support system that we needed at that time, because it gets exhausting, it gets emotional,” Katina says.

Sharing the Journey

And even when the books and laptops were put away to make room for a meal, the Clarkes found themselves discussing their educational journeys.

“It was a little easier to make time for each other because dinner conversation was about Walden,” Katina says. “If we had different spouses who were not in [a doctoral] program, [we’d] want to talk about it, but may find that they do not fully grasp the multidimensionality of the doctoral process.”

The Clarkes discovered that pursuing their individual academic goals actually brought them closer together.

“When you’re going through it, just as an individual, you’re excited about learning and growing into this new person,” Katina says. But the Clarkes got to share that excitement. According to Brian, the two changed roles frequently, each asking for and giving support.

“Pilot, co-pilot, whoever is sitting in whichever seat at a given point in time, we always knew we were doing it together,” Brian says.

The Clarkes benefited from a unique blend of support and competition that might not fit everybody’s marital relationship or family culture. They acknowledge the rarity of their connection. “We call ourselves the double unicorn,” says Katina. “We never fight,” says Brian.

Taking Support on the Road

Earning a doctorate requires an ability to push through when things seem impossible. The Clarkes realize that their source of support isn’t widely available, and they’re happy to help others.

“We have people in both of our bubbles who haven’t completed [their doctoral] program,” Katina says. “These people reach out to us, and we freely provide them with the support that we’ve been privileged to have with each other.”

When asked to share advice for those without a double-unicorn life partner and coach, Katina recommends fighting against the urge to self-isolate. “Take your residency as early as you can and actively reach out to people in your cohort,” she says.

Brian is more philosophical. “Ask for help,” he says. “Nobody can do this alone, and nobody should feel like they have to.”