Graduating during a pandemic means students won’t be able to celebrate in the ways they expected, with family and friends cheering in a packed UMBC Event Center. But earning their degrees will still be a joyful achievement that honors years of hard work and opens doors. For UMBC’s adult learners in particular, including Returning Women Student (RWS) Scholars, holding that diploma will mean the achievement of dreams long deferred.
“Once I made the first step, everything opened up”
This month Karla Gonzalez ‘20, social work, will become the first in her family to graduate from college, at age 34. For much of her life, college didn’t really seem like a possibility. She was proud to be one of the first in her family to finish high school, and to have a job that could support her three children. But as the years passed, Gonzalez realized something was missing—she had yet to reach her full potential.
Pursuing college involved significant change in Gonzalez’s life. She ended her marriage, left full-time work, and began to prioritize her dreams for the first time. She chose a career path that would build on the skills and talents she already had, and open up new possibilities. “Returning to college was the next stepping point that would allow me to stand on my own two feet,” she explains. “Once I made the first step, everything opened up.”
Gonzalez was very conscious that as an adult learner her experience didn’t follow a traditional timeline. It was her son who reminded Karla that she would be the first in their entire extended family to graduate college. Then, other family members joined in on the refrain, “You’re the first. You’re the first!”
“I never saw myself as a leader, but at UMBC I learned that I was one”
Gonzalez now sees her achievement not just as a brave step for herself, but as clearing the path for her family members to move forward with their own college dreams. “Even though I’m in my 30s, it is special and it should be celebrated,” Gonzalez shares. ”I am that example that will tell them they can go for whatever goals they have.”
She also celebrates the friendships she has built along the way, and how her peers and professors transformed the way she saw herself. “It isn’t just about getting a degree, but it’s also about those connections,” says Gonzalez. “I never saw myself as a leader, but at UMBC I learned that I was one.”
Gonzalez is this year’s Title IV-E Student of the Year, an honor recognizing a talented social work student who is dedicated to a career in public child welfare practice. She’ll next pursue a master’s in social work (MSW) through the advanced standing program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
“It’s been almost a 30-year journey”
Like her classmate, Nia Latimer ‘20, social work, entered UMBC at the age of 42 as a single parent, no longer willing to defer her dreams. After graduating from high school, Latimer went right to college, but withdrew due to financial constraints. Over the years, she would re-enroll in college, but be forced to pause to focus on other life events. She shares, “It’s been almost a 30-year journey.”
Latimer has had a fulfilling job with Baltimore City Public Schools, but the dream of a college degree always remained in the back of her mind. After the death of her husband, she realized that now was the time to finish her degree, while continuing to work full-time. She began listening to the way others described her strengths and skills and decided to pursue a degree and career in social work.
When Latimer arrived at UMBC, she shared, she finally felt like she “was home.” She felt welcomed into a community with students of all ages and was impressed by how inclusive UMBC’s social work program was for adult learners.
“It’s never too late to do this”
Latimer joined UMBC’s Returning Women Student Scholars + Affiliates program in her senior year. She found that other adult learners provided her with an additional layer of support that proved crucial to her success. The experience “validated that this is my time,” she says. “It’s never too late to do this.”
Graduating this May finally “feels like closure,” Latimer shares. She will become the first of her siblings to graduate with a college degree. And she has earned an award as Outstanding BSW Student Graduate, recognizing her academic achievements.
Latimer also knows this is just the beginning of a new chapter. She’ll soon begin an MSW through the advanced standing program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
Feeling “behind,” racing to catch up, and pausing to breathe
For Jumina Ito ‘20, biochemistry, “It was never a question as to whether I would return to school, only a question of when.”
Between the time of graduating high school and enrolling at UMBC in the fall of 2016 at the age of 26, Ito traveled across the U.S. and internationally, working on farms. Taking this time to explore her interests helped her develop a better understanding of herself, she says, but it also left her feeling “behind” when she got to college.
Once at UMBC, she felt an urgency to blaze through, taking as many credits as possible while also working to support her family. Eventually, Ito realized this approach was not sustainable. If she was going to finish, she’d need to slow down and to find a community of support.
“The slow and steady climb is worth it”
Ito found her community in the Returning Women Student Scholars + Affiliates program, which also connected her with the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program. These two programs provided her space to explore new possibilities for herself, including as an educator.
Now, she’s excited to pursue a STEM teaching career that will help her serve as a model and mentor for girls interested in science. This fall, Ito will begin teaching chemistry and aquaponics full-time at Green Street Academy, where she completed her applied learning experience as a Sheman Scholar.
Ito will be the first of her four siblings to graduate. She hopes her graduation will be a helpful example for others, reflecting that we “inherently put limitations on ourselves, but you can rise above them.” Looking back at her life’s twists and turns over the past decade, she shares, “The slow and steady climb is worth it.”
“I could do this on my own”
When Lauren Hall graduated with her bachelor’s degree from UMBC at the age of 29, she kept right on going to pursue a master of arts in teaching (M.A.T.). But her college path wasn’t always so clear. “If you asked me ten years ago, I never would have thought I’d have a master’s degree,” she says.
Hall ‘18, English literature, M.A.T. ‘20, became a mother at age 18, and devoted her years after high school to raising her two young children and supporting her then-husband’s pursuit of higher education. After her marriage ended, she decided to return to college. Even while feeling afraid to leave the comfort of the life she knew, she also determined, “I could do this on my own.”
Another new beginning
What began as small steps in returning to college quickly became a sprint. She took classes at the Community College of Baltimore County before transferring to UMBC. Once on campus, she focused on building a community where she could thrive even while juggling work and single parenthood.
Hall enjoyed the chance to connect with students of all ages through shared values, interests, and a mutual commitment to each other. She shares that some of her younger classmates not only became friends, but also an integral part of her support system, helping with childcare and carpool duty.
Hall has been a rock for her family for years, but jokes that her master’s degree means, “Now, I’m a full grown-up!” It’s another step forward—another new beginning. She looks forward to working as an English teacher, in either Baltimore City or Howard County Public Schools, and is committed to helping students believe in their potential.
For information about the Women’s Center and the RWS Scholars + Affiliates program that supports adult learners seeking their first undergraduate degree, visit womenscenter.umbc.edu.
In addition to the students featured above, the Women’s Center’s RWS Scholars + Affiliates Program celebrates May 2020 graduates Shanice Bramwell, health administration and policy (HAPP); Josephine Gyasi-Baaye, social work; Samantha Homa, geography and environmental studies; Victoria Hughes, social work; Tatiana Pearson, information systems; Joanna Riley, social work; Aieda Solomon, HAPP and sociology; and Sheila Yeelon, social work. UMBC also honors the numerous other adult learners earning degrees this spring, from across the university.
Article written by Jess Myers, director of the Women’s Center at UMBC.
Featured image: RWS Scholars (including Jumina Ito and Lauren Hall) meet with President Freeman Hrabowski during fall 2018 orientation. Photo courtesy of the Women’s Center.