Celebrating our December 2019 Returning Women Student Scholar Graduates!

A post curated by Women’s Center director, Jess Myers.

Last week, the Women’s Center celebrated our Returning Women Student Scholars graduating this semester at our pinning ceremony. This event has become a tradition in the Women’s Center as a means to celebrate our continuing and graduating returning women students who are UMBC students 25 years and older seeking their first undergraduate degree. These students are called “returning” because they often have various circumstances that have kept them from what our popular culture deems as a traditional college path and they are now “returning” to college to pursue their degree. Student scholars in this program not only receive scholarships to help financial supplement their tuition, but also benefit from tailored support and programming from Women’s Center staff through individualized meetings, programs, and events that meet the specific needs of older students on campus. Each year we have between 20-25 scholars and affiliates participate in this unique program.

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December graduates from the Returning Women Students Scholars + Affiliates program at the graduating pinning ceremony.

At this special “pinning” ceremony, graduating seniors receive their Women’s Center Returning Women Student Scholars + Affiliates pin to wear at graduation. Each scholar was invited to share a short reflection, many of which included joy, excitement, gratitude, and sheer exhaustion. Graduating seniors spoke to the students who were still in the process of working towards their degree, Don’t worry, you can do it. You’ll be in my position soon enough.

Before the pinning ceremony began, graduating senior, Katrina Kelly, read a poem she read at a previous celebration that resonated deeply with students. As the poem was read aloud again, the group of students present became captivated by the reality this poem had in their own lives. For a non-traditional adult learner who often feels like they are taking on the weight of the world, this poem is a powerful testament to their strength and determination.

“…I’ve hated this woman. I’ve not loved her at full capacity. I’ve fed her lies & told her she wasn’t good enough and have allowed others to tell her she wasn’t good enough. I’ve allowed her to be broken. I’ve allowed others to treat her disrespectfully. I’ve allowed her to run through brick walls & battle for others who won’t even stand for her. I couldn’t stop individuals from abandoning her, yet I’ve seen her get up and stand to be a light to the world & love others despite all that. I have stood paralyzed by fear while she fought battles in her mind, heart and soul….She is who she is. Every mistake, failure, trial, disappointment, success, joy, and achievement has made her the woman she is today…. This Woman is a WARRIOR. She’s not perfect but God calls her WORTHY! She’s UNSTOPPABLE. Gracefully broken but beautifully standing. She is love. She is life. She is transformation. She is ME and She is BRAVE!”

Anyone who has spent time in the Women’s Center knows that working with this special group of students is one of my favorite experiences in my role as director of the Women’s Center. At a university which celebrates, grit and greatness, no other student cohort exhibits both with such deep grace and humility. As individuals and as a community, they are brave and unstoppable. So, it is with great joy that I invite you to join me in celebrating these fantastic students and their accomplishments. Below are some of our graduating students who in their own words share what they were involved in at UMBC, what’s next for them after UMBC, and some sage advice for other adult learners.

Happy Graduation!!!

Brandy Altice, Newcombe Scholar 

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Brandy and Jess at the Returning Women Student Scholars pinning celebration.

I transferred to UMBC in the fall of 2015. It had been seven years since I received my Associates degree in Sociology from the College of Southern Maryland. I was nervous to begin another journey into my college career especially with a husband and two year old daughter at home. At first I felt out of place, returning as an older student, but quickly made friends with fellow classmates. Although, it wasn’t until being accepted as a Returning Women Student Scholar that I really felt that I was part of a community at UMBC. I felt like I belonged.

Now that I’m graduating with honors, I plan to take a semester off to enjoy my family before moving on in my journey toward a Masters Degree. I am currently in the process of enrolling into a graduate program for social work or psychology. Although I look forward to having time off from my studies, I am excited to launch the next chapter of my college career. Thanks to UMBC and The Returning Women’s Scholarship Program, I strongly feel ready and capable.

My advice to current returning women students…  is to not let anything get in your way. Make your college experience your own. Take advantage of all that is offered at UMBC and the Women’s Center. Do as much as you can to enjoy your journey. Celebrate all your successes. Celebrate all your challenges. Above all, know that you WILL come out on the other side a stronger and a more confident person than before.

Josie Aquino, Newcombe Scholar 

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Josie and Jess at the Returning Women Student Scholars pinning celebration.

I transferred to UMBC from Harford Community College (HCC) in the fall of 2017 with plans to major in mechanical engineering. Earning my bachelor’s degree is a dream I’ve held close to my heart for as long as I can remember. As a first-generation college student with four younger sisters, my family is my greatest inspiration. Although I knew that attending a 4-year institution would bring me closer to reaching my goals, graduation still felt so unreachable and far away. I thought the next two or three years would feel like an eternity, especially because of being a returning student. Most of my friends had long graduated and were already well into their careers. Here I was just beginning.

During my first semester, I struggled to make connections on campus. Even though I was experiencing many of the same difficulties all new students face, I dealt with the added challenge of being a non-traditional student. Connecting with the Women’s Center and getting involved with the Returning Women Students Scholarship Program has had a huge impact on my UMBC experience. More than anything, it has provided me with a feeling of belonging. I have been so inspired by the women I have met through this program, and there are no words for how much it means to me to know that I am not alone. Hearing their stories of struggle and triumph have helped me to believe that I, too, will be able to achieve my dreams.

It is surreal to me that graduation is only days away. This day I’d thought would never come is finally here. Throughout my time at UMBC, I’ve been challenged in unexpected ways and pushed to the absolute limits of my abilities. I’ve failed more times than I can count. I’ve experienced suffocating self-doubt. I’ve cried silent tears as I walked alone across campus. The demands of higher education have strained my relationships and deprived me of sleep. Despite all of this, I wouldn’t change a thing about my UMBC journey. I am not the same person I was two years ago. I am infinitely stronger and more resilient. I know who I am, and I know what I have to offer. Every failure has been a lesson, as hard as it can be sometimes to view them that way. Every victory has brought me closer to achieving my goals.

When I graduate, I will be wearing a stole for being a Mechanical Engineering Department Teaching Fellow (TF), a cord for being involved in the M.O.D.E.L. M.E. peer mentoring program, a cord for being a first-generation college student, and—one of the most special of all—a purple paw print pin. My entire family will be in the audience cheering me on.

      If I can do it, you can do it.

My advice to current returning women students: Don’t ever give up on your dreams. Ask for help when you need it. Do things that scare you. Be kind to yourself.

Learn more about Josie’s experience featured in a UMBC news story celebrating December 2019 graduates! 

Katrina Kelly, Newcombe Scholar 

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Katrina and Jess at the Returning Women Student Scholars pinning celebration.

The first steps I took onto the beautiful campus of UMBC were from the #35 bus stop at Hilltop up the long walk to the Admissions office. I felt electrified and overwhelmed at the same time. Transferring from SUNY-Empire State College in New York, an institution crafted for working adults, into a traditional four-year university as a non-traditional student tapped into nearly every self-doubt I had and yet the necessity to complete my education left me (thankfully) with no choice but to press onward. I transferred into the Geography and Environmental Systems (GES) program in Fall 2016, having changed from my original major of Business Management and Economics because I had discovered a profound passion for many elements of this work.

In addition to being a full-time, independent student, I also worked part-time and full-time (when possible) to support myself. I participated in Federal Work Study in the Department of Music and worked as a research assistant for GES faculty, held a brief internship with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as an Oyster Restoration Intern, served as the Director of the Communications Department of the UMBC Student Government Association, and am currently participating in the University System of Maryland Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) undergraduate research internship program. Among the most important aspects of my experience here has been the Women’s Center and the Returning Women Students Scholarship program. The moral and financial support I have received through the center, through Jess (the RWS Angel), and the Newcombe Scholarship have been irreplaceable and invaluable.

I graduate this Fall with not only my Bachelor’s degree, but with a determination to enter graduate school in Fall 2020 to study sustainable urban planning and/or environmental engineering and an interest in international environmental research programs where I can apply the training (and Spanish language skills) I have acquired through my time here. I am so grateful. GO DAWGS!

My advice to current returning women students: Decide that you will create value from everything you experience here so that everything, even in the smallest of ways, fuels your determination and provides impetus for your ongoing success. Stubbornly refuse to quit until you feel that you have won.

For more information about the Returning Women Student Scholars + Affiliates program, visit the Women’s Center website. Returning Women Students at UMBC are also encouraged to join the group’s Facebook group.