EdD Graduate Lisa Sama-Barreto Powers Through Her Doctorate While Battling Breast Cancer

Lisa Sama-Barreto '00, MEd '10, EdD '24

For Lisa Sama-Barreto, completing her degree in spring 2024 as part of William Paterson University’s inaugural cohort of doctor of education (EdD) in leadership graduates was never a question, even when life took an unexpected turn. She had entered the EdD program in 2021 and was in her third year, conducting interviews and research for her dissertation, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram in October.

“This is going to sound very strange but being in the doctoral program made me focus on the doctoral program and not on the breast cancer. I didn't have a lot of time to think about it. I was always moving at 100 miles an hour,” says Sama-Barreto. The EdD is her third William Paterson degree; she also earned the bachelor of arts in English/writing in 2000 and the master of education (MEd) in educational leadership in 2010.

Sama-Barreto underwent surgery in November 2023, and did radiation treatments five days per week for four weeks from January through February 2024. All the while she continued to collect dissertation data, analyzed the data she collected while she recovered from surgery, and wrote chapters four and five of her dissertation while undergoing radiation therapy.

“The doctors tell me that I am the epitome of early detection. My prognosis is great. I didn't have to have chemotherapy because they caught it so early. But if I had to do that too, I would have done it, and I would have still finished this program,” says Sama-Barreto. 

During her treatment, she also continued to serve as principal of Burnet Hill Elementary School in Livingston, NJ, where she is responsible for 500 students and 120 staff members. Prior to her role as principal in Livingston, Sama-Barreto spent 22 years with the Woodland Park School District as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal. 

After receiving her diagnosis, she confided in her dissertation advisor, education Professor Sam Fancera. “I met with Dr. Fancera and I told him what was going on and that it's not going to stop me. I told him, ‘I'm going to finish this program. I'm going to finish my studies.’ He never asked questions, but he was available to me always, and he was a source of support.”

Sama-Barreto acknowledges that the radiation was very difficult, and the dissertation process was grueling. But her passion for her dissertation topic, “Principals’ Perspectives on English as a Second Language Program Refusals” gave her motivation to push through. “When parents refuse services for their eligible children, what are principals doing to support the children in the classroom? I wanted this paper done. I want it out there, for people to think about the ESL population of students. They are a unique group of children that have extraordinary needs.”

She also drew on her own heritage as a daughter of immigrants to find the courage to keep going. “My parents came from Italy with very little money. My grandparents made a bold move to leave their countries of origin and to take my parents with them. And I feel like I really relied on those same characteristics of determination, perseverance, grit, and tenacity to dig deep into myself. Just to have that understanding of where I come from, that's what really drove me.”

After successfully defending her dissertation on March 26, Sama-Barreto then began the process of “edits upon edits,” often working at 4:00 a.m. before submitting her final paper on May 9, and getting word from Professor Fancera that she was officially done.

Sama-Barreto, whose ultimate “glass ceiling goal” is to become a superintendent, is one of the University’s first group of nine doctor of education in leadership candidates receiving their degrees at the May 20 graduate commencement ceremonies. The three-year, 55-credit EdD program prepares candidates for executive leadership roles in a variety of career settings.

In addition to Professor Fancera, Sama-Barreto is thankful for the support of her fellow EdD candidates, as well as her husband, her two sons, and her parents.

“If you make a goal in your mind and you stay focused on that, nothing can stop you. I feel like nothing could have stopped me from being here and graduating with my cohort,” she says.