May 30, 2018

Guest Essay: Completing the Academic Journey with My Daughter

By Wendy Cummings, SUNY Empire State College ’18

Wendy Cummings and her daughter, Alexandra Cummings, graduated in May 2018

Having been a stay at home mom most of my adult life, I never dreamt that at the age of 52 I would be enrolling in college. I must say that the idea had not been mine, but my daughter, Alexandra’s, who at the time, was a student at SUNY Empire State College. After she had initially proposed the idea of me becoming a part of Empire’s student body, I simply scoffed it off. Yet I could not seem to shake the thought.

Yes, I had longed for the opportunity to earn a college degree, but not only had I been out of school for over 30 years, and was a mediocre student at best, I am one who repels any type of technology. I had just recently begun texting and had no clue how to send an email. But with the support of Alexandra, along with my four other children, I began to believe that my dream of earning a college degree could one day be realized.

My first challenge was to pen a letter of intent to Empire. What would I say? Much to Alexandra’s chagrin, I kept the letter completely personal, writing it as if I was sending it to an old friend. I saturated the letter with details about my debilitating illness, my burning desire to earn a formal education, and my five college educated children. When I look back, it could have been mistaken for one of those dreaded Christmas letters. You know the one: “My son just graduated with his doctorate from Harvard and my daughter is starring in the Broadway play, Hamilton.” Someone in the admissions office had felt it worthy enough, for within a week I received my acceptance letter from Empire. Though my uncooperative body refused to dance the gig, I was so excited I cried all over the very letter I now intended on framing.

The next thing I had to do was fill out my Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which most college students are very well-versed in. I looked at Alexandra and said “FAFSA? Your father always handled that for you kids. I wouldn’t know where to go or how to fill out the forms if my life depended on it.” But my life did depend on it, or at least, my academic life did. After creating an account for me, Alexandra zipped right through the forms, and before I knew it I had been sent a confirmation email from the federal government stating that my application was being processed. That was it! I was going to college.

With my FAFSA completed, I now had to decide on a major, which frankly was not at all hard. As far back as my memory serves me, I had wanted to be a doctor of psychiatry. While my young playmates would be setting up their “houses,” which they had kept very neat and tidy for their “husbands,” who were busy at the office earning the “bacon,” I had created a makeshift office with the word psychiatry spelled something like “sikatry” across a big piece of cardboard, and with clipboard in hand, would therapize one bored “housewife” after the other as they complained of such things as picking up their husband’s dirty underwear off the floor and not having enough money to redo the living room.

At 52 years old and in ill health, medical school was not an option for me. But after having researched the field of mental health, I felt that becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) would better suit me because of the close interaction counselors have with their clients, unlike the psychiatrist who, in modern times, mostly diagnose and medicate, after which they refer the patient out.

With everything in place, I was ready to register for my classes, that is, until the school informed me that I had to travel to meet my assigned mentor, Maureen Kravec, whose office is located on the Jefferson Community College campus, for identification purposes. At the time, I was unable to travel, and so my heart sunk, feeling as if becoming a part of the Empire team was no longer an option for me. But thanks to Dr. Kravec who was kind enough to travel to my home, I was once more back in the game.

Though I am familiar with what a syllabus is, I found the words of instruction to be a bit foreign to me. Needless to say, I began to heavily rely upon my daughter, Alexandra, to uncrack the code of professor lingo. To begin with, she would take time from her own homework and sit and go over every one of my assignments with me, explaining in detail what each professor had expected his or her student to do. Because I did not have the financial resources to pay for internet service, after each completed assignment, she would then use her personal Universal Serial Bus (USB) to send in my work to the designated professor.

Within a few short weeks of school starting, it began to feel as if Alexandra and I had switched roles. Alexandra had now taken on the authoritative position, whereas I had become the wide-eyed child, unsure of every step I took. In the beginning, the two of us would butt heads, disagreeing on everything that I was doing. For example, in Dr. Standlee’s class, Exploring Society, she had assigned journals that were to be turned in weekly. For my first journal, I had worked all day perfecting it, only to have Alexandra rip it to shreds. I can still see her standing before me, trying her best not to hurt my feelings. “Mom, you can’t keep writing about your personal life.” I, of course, came back with what I had felt was a very logical explanation: “Journals are supposed to be personal.” There was this long pause, then at length she said, “You don’t want to learn, do you?” Wow how her words had stung!

Truthfully, I was only writing about what I knew. The only thing I had known for the past 30 years, my family. That evening, I lay in bed crying, scared that I was not cut out for this fantastic journey that I had embarked upon. I questioned my intelligence and began doubting the faith I had in myself. But through my tears something very profound happened that night, a surge of perseverance. With the arrival of dawn came the birth of a woman intent on mastering the world of academia. And so I began listening to my daughter, Alexandra. Not only is she a brilliant young woman, but a wise and wonderful teacher as well.

Before long I was churning out one college paper after the other, and eventually was able to find a healthy balance between the technical information and my personal experiences. I became very competent in my writing ability, although I will admit, it was not until the very end of my time at Empire, that I fully understood the rules surrounding the complicated world of citations. Thank you to Professor Teal Abel for constantly dinging me for my misuse of the pesky buggers.

This May, I walked arm and arm across the stage with my daughter, Alexandra, as she receives her BS in Literature and me a BA in Human Development. And though words cannot express my gratitude for this blessed opportunity to have earned my college degree, I am most proud of my daughter and all that she has accomplished. It has been a long road for the both of us, and although difficult at times, the bond that we shared will forever be unbreakable. It is not often that a mother and daughter duo can share such an enlightening experience. But I must say, now that I have my degree, I am more than happy to take back my authoritative role, letting Alexandra once more become the wide-eyed child she will always be to me.

In closing, I would like to thank the following professors who, without their care and concern, my journey would not have been a successful one. Dr.’s Standlee and Kravec and professor’s Hanlin, Chabon, Petzoldt, Abel, Franz, Knowles, Cooper, Wales, Gallagher, Testani, and Congemi. You will forever be close to my heart. I want to extend a big thank you to Heather Gaebel whom Alexandra and I relied heavily upon to communicate to us important information pertaining to school and who was always there to answer all our questions. To Gloria Begier in student accounts, your patience and hard work in ensuring I received my financial aid money in a timely fashion was so very much appreciated. And to Dr. Maureen Kravec, without you, none of this could have been possible. You are a shining example of how one person can make a profound difference in another person’s life. Your help has put me in a position where I will now be able to pay it forward to those people in need of mental counseling. You are truly one of those rare pebbles that in the end will have caused a landslide.

Lastly, to my daughter, Alexandra, without your constant belief in me and your uplifting words, I would not have had the mental strength to have finished my college degree. And without your willingness to have led the way, I would not have been able to maneuver through the world of text books and tough terminology. You are that bright light whenever my tunnel becomes too dark to see my way out. A shining star you are.

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