UMBC Women Who Rock is a blog series I’m working on throughout the 2014-15 academic year. In my role as Women’s Center director, I have some of the best opportunities to become acquainted with some of UMBC’s best and brightest women on campus. I admire the ways they live authentic lives unapologetically that challenge the stereotypes and assumptions that are often assigned to women. By debunking these stereotypes and forcing us to check our assumptions, they allow us to expand our notion of what a woman is and can be.
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UMBC Women Who Rock!
Ashley Sweet, GWST & Social Work double-major & Returning Women Student Scholar
When I was in second grade my mother graduated from Essex Community College (now CCBC). I vividly remember her graduation day. The special occasion provided me the opportunity to wear my first communion dress again. We sat in the make-shift auditorium of the gym waiting and waiting for my mom’s name to be called. I’m not sure if I connected her studying and note taking throughout my childhood to this special day. Though I remember her watching her classes broadcast through local TV on Saturday mornings while she folded the laundry, I’m also not sure if I correlated those memories to her graduation day. But, finally hearing her name called on that hot day in that gym with tons of people was like music to my ears. My mom was special. She was somebody special enough to have their name read out loud in a crowd.
I can only imagine the way Richie and Benny will feel when they hear their mom’s name called from that very impressive stage from inside the downtown arena on May 21st. When they hear “Ashley Sweet, summa cum laude,” I am certain their ears will perk up. They’ll smile and wave and know in their heart of hearts that their mom is someone special.
And she so very much is.
In her three years at UMBC, Ashley has maintained a 4.0 GPA. 4.0 folks! She was one of the leaders of Women Involved in Learning and Leadership which led her to projects like acting in and directing Vagina Monologues, advocating for pay equity, and working to end street harassment (i.e. she’s also a bad ass feminist). She spearheaded a “Prove It” proposal that would have provided drop-in childcare at select campus events. She completed hundreds of hours at her social work field placement and is now working to complete her GWST capstone project about birth stories and experiential knowledge. She spoke at the Women’s Center Healthy Masculinity event about her experience raising boys and ensuring their masculinity isn’t confined to societal norms and expectations. She is a Returning Women Student Scholar and has received additional awards throughout her time at UMBC. She attended conferences like the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders and the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference while forming important and meaningful friendships and mentors. Did I mention that she’s raising 2 young boys while doing all of this as well?!
With these accomplishments under her belt, it’s hard to imagine Ashley ever feeling (or still feeling) out of place at UMBC. But in fact, as we talked in my office a few weeks ago to help me prepare for this post, Ashley shared the memory of having a great deal of remorse coming to UMBC. She regretted not going to college right away when she could have so when she got to UMBC she thought she’d be all business. She would just go to classes, keep her head down, and get her degree. No fun. No extras. Just the degree. Moreover, Ashley was really conscious of being the “older” student. She said, “I felt that I was interfering with these kids in the midst of college life and now they had to deal with this adult in their class talking about children.” At some point within her first year, though, Ashley finally felt like she wanted to make a point to matter. Make a point to matter. Ashley began bridging her worlds to fill in the gap between when she was on campus and when she left campus. Her kids, Richie and Benny (as well as her husband, Thomas) would come to campus with her. Ashley notes that the bridging of her worlds helped her classmates and others on campus (like me!) see what this abstract idea of what a returning women student parent really looks like. Just as importantly, it’s helped her kids see college as an aspiration. Indeed, they are some of UMBC’s youngest Retrievers.
This doesn’t mean that everything was easy and perfect. We know that’s not how the story goes for any student, let alone a student who is traversing a campus culture that was not originally intended to support non-traditional students. As Ashley and I were talking, I commented on my desire to see more staff and faculty make space for children in their classroom and on campus. I expected her to readily agree with me but she didn’t. “I get why professors are hesitant to have children in the classroom,” she said, “I’m hesitant too.” She then reflected about a recent experience in which she was without a babysitter during a class time she simply couldn’t miss. So her youngest, Benny came with her. While he was well-behaved, Ashley commented on the stress it induced. She said he “wasn’t being bad but he was being three.” Despite accommodating classmates and a supportive professor, Ashley still classified herself as “abnormal” because suddenly “class revolves around me and even though it’s not really a big deal… but it’s a lot of weight to carry around on my shoulders.”
In the student affairs world, we toss around the phrase “student first” often. In the Women’s Center we shift schedules to accommodate busy test times and paper writing with great willingness because our student staff are, of course, students first. As someone who isn’t a mother, I’m making the assumption that this phrase can also be applied to motherhood. Perhaps it’s my selfish expectation that as a child I want my mom to always be a “mother first” because it’s comforting to me. It is Ashley, and other student parents, who have challenged this assumption and expectation within me. It’s not about being “student first” or “mother first,” but both—and. Ashley is mother, wife, and student (and friend and daughter and sister and…and and…) all at the same time. Ashley said it best, in fact, when I asked her what she believes she contributed to the UMBC community with the response of “I’ve given them insight into a parallel life people lead.” Because Ashley doesn’t get to pick “student first” or “mother first.” She is both and it’s our decision as a UMBC community to indeed allow and support her (and others like her) to be both. To steal the concept from Sheryl Sandberg, we all need to do our part to lean in when respecting and supporting the full and complete lives of student parents.
After my first year working at UMBC, I remember reflecting on the mothers I met and the way they navigated the complexities of motherhood, employee, and student without choosing the either – or but the both – and. Through their challenges and triumphs, I saw my mother in a whole new light. I appreciated her as a complex being that humbled my core. She is, and always will be, my mother, but, she is also somebody.
When I hear Ashley’s name at graduation, I will smile and know she is special. Not only because she is an adult learner. Not only because she is a mother. But because she is all of that and more. She is somebody. She is a somebody who has come into her own and discovered who she is (which is awesome) during her time at UMBC while helping others on their own journey to self-discovery and learning. And that’s why she’s a UMBC Women Who Rocks!
Happy Mother’s Day AND Graduation Ashley!
Who are the UMBC women in your life that inspire you to think outside your expectations and assumptions? What are the counter narrative stories they’re sharing with us allowing UMBC and our greater community to be more of exactly who we want to be? Comment below and maybe you’ll just find them featured in a future UMBC Women Who Rock post.
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Check out other UMBC Women Who Rock:
Amanda Knapp (featured August 2014)
Susan Dumont (featured October 2014)
Jahia Knobloch (featured January 2015)
A Reflection on Encouragement and Accountability (February 2015)
Amelia Meman (March 2015)