Graduation: A Decade-Long Journey

Carrie Profile PicA final reflection from Carrie Cleveland as a undergraduate and Women’s Center staff member

In the fall of 1996, I started my college journey at Douglass College at Rutgers University.  I spent a brief three semesters at Rutgers, mostly floundering around and hating my choice of major (pre-business).  In December of 1997, I left college and began working at Starbucks.  I managed to support myself, but barely.  I spent a few years at Starbucks, but knew that this was not what I wanted to do with my life.

When I decided to leave the retail/restaurant world, I had a hard time finding another job that would pay me a living wage.  I was told that my lack of college degree made me “highly unemployable” in the words of one recruiter.   It was then that I tried to get back to school.  I could never figure out how to pay for it and cover my living expenses.  I had no idea what I was doing in terms of financial aid and loans.  I never asked for help. I just kept on working low paying jobs that had no professional opportunities for growth and thought I would go back to school later.

Time passed. I got married and had a baby.  We then picked up and moved from New Jersey to Maryland.  In my new home, I felt isolated with a husband who worked A LOT, a newborn baby to care for, and no nearby family or friends.  I convinced my husband that it would be a good idea for me to go back to school, even if it was just to have some social interaction with people who could form complete sentences.

In the fall of 2007, I re-started my college journey at Anne Arundel Community College.  I still had no idea what I wanted to be when I *grew up* (mind you, I was almost 30 at the time), but I walked through the door thinking I would get my general education credits done and figure it out from there.  In the meantime, I  would go on to have another baby, find my calling (social work), graduate from AACC, and have ANOTHER baby.

While my story is uniquely me, it isn’t necessarily a unique story. More and more students non-traditional students are enrolling in college. In fact, you’ll often hear the phrase that the non-traditional student is the new traditional student. Even though our numbers are increasing, the barriers we face as non-traditional students have yet to be diminished (even though the Women’s Center Returning Women Students Scholars Program is working hard to support us!). The American Association of University Women released a report about women in community colleges a few years ago that outlines the many barriers that non-traditional women students face when returning to school.  One of those barriers is child care which definitely reflects my own experiences.  It was easier to be in school and manage child care at the community college level and I really had no idea how challenging it would get when I would leave community college and transfer to a four-year institution.  Looking back over the past several years, I feel like I spent just as much time arranging child care as I did writing papers…..  But I digress.

That brings me to UMBC.  Four years ago, in the fall of 2012, I started what would be my “last stop” on my undergraduate journey.  I cannot believe that I am standing here today, so close to graduation.  It has taken me 9 years of continuously being enrolled in school to get to this day.  As I think about graduating, it seems unfathomable that my time here is done.  I always knew I would finish school, but it always felt so far away.  Now, it just feels SO real and VERY bittersweet.


When I walk across that stage tomorrow, my three daughters and my husband will see what is the culmination of all of our hard work.  I say “our” because I may have done the academic work but they were all there supporting me.  My kids have no idea what it is like to have a mom who is not in college.  I also have an entire village of other moms who have schlepped my kids across town, or to dance class, swimming or Girl Scouts so I could be in class or field placement or write a paper.  I have friends who have watched my kids on snow days or the inevitable days when their schedule just did not match with mine. I feel like they have all earned this degree. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I say it take a village to get a mom through college.

Thank goodness for talented friends who design your cap so your kids can find you in a sea of graduates!

I had an amazing four years.  I will leave UMBC with not only a degree, but with four years of experiences that I did not think were possible for a non-traditional student.  I was able to become involved with BreakingGround and do work that I really enjoyed.  I found a job at the Women’s Center where my unique experiences were considered an asset as a student staff member.  I made some great friends, both traditional and non-traditional students.  I am going to miss UMBC.  Good thing my daughter has a swim meet here in a few weeks.  That is the life of a mom, right?


Congrats to all of UMBC’s non-tradiation students graduating on May 19th to include a very special shout out to the graduating students in the Women’s Center’s Returning Women Students Scholars Program!

To read more about Carrie and her experience at UMBC, check out the Baltimore Sun’s Class of 2016 Graduate Profiles! 



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