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Campus Women Lead

Winter 2012

Volume 40
Number 3

Access and Success for Nontraditional Students


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From Where I Sit

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From Where I Sit

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Michelle Jozaitis spacer
Michelle Jozaitis
(Photo by Wayne Armstrong)

Finding My Path through Higher Education
By Michelle Jozaitis, senior in the Law and Society Program at the University of Denver’s Women’s College

I was the last person who ever thought I would graduate with a BA, let alone with honors. It wasn’t because I didn’t think I was smart enough: I just never imagined that I would find my path through higher education. Although I always enjoyed school, I often found the social and artistic aspects—like the school’s theater program, where I could express myself through acting, singing, and costume design—more interesting than the core academic classes. Despite my misgivings about education, after graduating from high school, I went off to a big state college in Denver. Like many eighteen-year-olds, I had no idea what major to pursue. At first I majored in photography, and when that became too expensive, I switched to theater. But the thought of carving out my adult life terrified me, so I dropped out. No one at the big state school seemed to notice or care that I didn’t show up. They made it easy to fail.

Instead of pursuing my education, I led a party-filled life that helped me pave over the emptiness I felt. I knew I was smart. I knew I could succeed in the academic world, but I was having trouble navigating to a destination. Then at age twenty-two I visited my mom, who had moved back to our home state of Hawaii after my high-school graduation. While walking with her through a botanical garden outside of Waikiki, I came upon an autograph tree, named for the thick leaves that allow people to scrape messages in their outer layers. My eyes went to a leaf that said, “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” Reflecting on the message, I knew I was denying myself the life that I deserved. I decided, for myself and for my family, to move home to Hawaii and improve my life.

A Mother’s Influence

After welcoming me back home, my mom, who had always supported my education, demanded that I enroll in classes at the local community college. Since she had saved me from myself, I obliged. I chose to take a philosophy class similar to one I had failed at my old school, exploring a subject with which I thought I could identify. The class spoke to my soul, and the teacher ignited my passion for learning. Taking every philosophy course the school offered, I finally I began to see academic success. But career counselors told me that a philosophy degree would lead down one path: to a job in the ministry, a possibility that made me extremely uncomfortable.  I wanted to learn without being tied to any particular field. As I wondered if this was possible, my passion for academia started to wane.

At age twenty-six, life called me back to Colorado. I refused to fall back into the life I had worked so hard to leave, but I also lacked the clear path I had hoped would keep me from returning to it. Again my mother pushed me, this time into the Women’s College at the University of Denver (DU). Having heard about the Women’s College through a salon offered by DU’s humanities department, she had already attended an open house and had decided that the school was a perfect fit for me. I, on the other hand, was not interested, since the school did not have a philosophy program. But as often happens with mothers and daughters, my mother prevailed: I was going to the open house, and I was going with a smile and an open mind.     

I was inspired by the students I met at the open house, but with my heart still set on a philosophy major, I wasn’t convinced. While lingering after the panel discussion to speak with students and staff, I was approached by a faculty member from the Law and Society program. She told me that classes met on nights and weekends, and that classrooms were designed to create a conversational environment, elements that I found appealing. She also convinced me that I would enjoy the Law and Society program because of its similarities to philosophy. Students who had majored in Law and Society pursued careers in law, social work, and education, all professions that interested me. Persuaded by this conversation, I decided to apply and was accepted into the program.

The Power of Support

During the registration process and throughout the first quarter, I kept waiting for someone to disappoint me. But no one did. In fact, things kept getting better. For the first time, I felt that staff and faculty were genuinely invested in me. During registration, I learned that I had been awarded the Persistence Scholarship for never giving up over all the years I had tried so hard to pursue my education. Staff told me that they felt the Women’s College was what I had been looking for and that they were happy to have me. They truly cared about me and my education. There are no words to describe how much their involvement meant to me. It inspired me to work hard and obtain my degree.

Now my journey is coming to an end, and I will graduate with my DU bachelor’s degree in June. Supported by a second scholarship in my final months as a student, I will participate in a class trip to Uruguay, where I will conduct a comparison study between feminist movements there and in the United States for my senior project. There is no way I would be accomplishing these things without the support of faculty, staff, and students at the Women’s College. I’m not sure where life will lead me next. Ultimately, I want to earn a doctorate in law and with it, the alphabet behind my name that I have always imagined. But no matter where I go, I know I will succeed because people believe in me.

Looking back on my education, I don’t have any regrets. All my attempts and failures benefited me in the end. I know what it feels like to be just another student with a number, waiting in long lines to talk to a counselor who doesn’t even know your name. I know what it’s like to sit in classrooms where teachers throw facts at you and blame you if you don’t catch them. But at the Women’s College, I have looked forward to going to class every quarter. I have been exposed to ideas and opportunities I never dreamed existed. When I come to class, I can’t wait to see not only the students but also the teachers. I can’t wait to discuss the ills of the world and plan how to fix them.

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