Studying abroad is often a right of passage for traditional undergraduate college students.
For Puyallup resident Melissa Workman, a single mother of two, she ordinarily wouldn’t be able to afford a study abroad trip, but thanks to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, her dream to study abroad is becoming a reality.
Workman will begin her four-week trip abroad to China on June 21, and is set to complete the summer quarter program July 18. Workman and her colleagues from the University of Washington Tacoma will spend three weeks in Beijing and a week in Qingdao.
“My bachelor’s is in Asian history. I’m minoring in education and Asian studies,” the 37-year-old said. “Right there, it’s going to help me finish up my degree in the course of a quarter.”
Workman’s also working on a research paper for her senior thesis, so it’s going to give her ample time to be over there.
“I’m writing my paper on Empress Dowager Cixi and I’m going to be living in Beijing, and that’s where she was,” Workman said. “I’m going to be amongst all of the things that she did. I’m going to interview some people. Hopefully I’ll be able to hit the archives over there.”
The Gilman Scholarship was designed to help cover the costs of studying abroad for students with economical difficulties who have high GPAs and are attending a two- or four-year university. Workman was encouraged to apply by professor and co-leader of the trip, Dr. Mary Hanneman.
“What would have stalled me from going overseas was the financial burden,” Workman said. “From there, I just started applying and going for it.”
After a 17-year hiatus from school, this past fall Workman finally took the last big leap to finishing her bachelor’s degree, and will graduate in the summer of 2016.
“I first got a degree 17 years ago as a physical therapy assistant, and when I married my ex-husband we traveled all over the United States and the world and I couldn’t utilize my degree,” the mother of two said. “It became nothing. So after my divorce was finalized, I came back here and had gentle nudges toward getting something accomplished. My friends and family were pushing me as well and after about a year and a half, I applied to UW to see if it would even take. I got in in under a couple hours, and that was about two weeks before classes started. I couldn’t believe it.”
Since starting classes last fall, Hanneman has been beyond impressed with Workman’s drive to complete her degree.
“She is very attentive,” the UWT professor said. “She’s really focused on what she’s learning. She’s well prepared and always willing to participate in class discussions. (She’s) really a good team builder since she reaches out to other students, and she’s really helped to create a good atmosphere in my classes this quarter.”
With Workman nearing completion on her degree, she knows that graduate school is for certain, but which program she will enroll in is still up in the air.
“I am going to have to go on, but it’s either going to be education or library science,” the Puyallup native said. “I’d like to be a research librarian, but I’m still debating how I’m going to accomplish all of that. One step at a time. My ultimate goal, if I can do it, is to get my master’s as a library and information specialist. And then I would like to go on to get my Ph. D in history. I think that would be helpful for doing library research. ”
As a mom to sons Soren, 8, and 6-year-old Sascha Bartlett, Workman revealed her secret to balancing single motherhood, working for UWT as a peer adviser, a position as a para-educator in the Puyallup School District and her time as a student.
“I just try and make everything work,” she said. “If something doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I try to be as flexible as I can, and my children are really flexible as well. My parents do help out occasionally with after school care if I’m still in class, which is really helpful. I don’t know if I would be able to make it without them helping me.”
In addition to earning her bachelor’s degree, Workman hopes she can inspire others in similar situations to just jump in and go back to school.
“I hope I can encourage someone else,” she said. “I remember reading stories about other women, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I really hope I’m never in that situation because I don’t think I will be strong enough.’ Hopefully my story will be able to encourage someone else.”
According to Hanneman, many students at UWT are in similar situations, but she offered advice to those as well.
“Be brave and do it,” she said. “We do have a lot of single moms here at UWT, and a lot of students are returning to school after being away for a while. I know it’s pretty intimidating for them. Sometimes it takes a little bit of a learning curve getting back in to the groove of studying. Professors here really understand that about the student body. It’s important for us to make education accessible.”