There are many paths to a college degree. Meet a few soon-to-be graduates who will celebrate years of hard work and dedication Sunday at Mary Baldwin College’s 172nd Commencement.
Residential College for Women
Four years after Berra Kabarungi left Rwanda to study at Mary Baldwin on a full scholarship, she plans to return to her home country not only with a degree in social work, but also with critical thinking skills developed through liberal arts education.
At MBC, Kabarungi enrolled in a wide variety of courses and took advantage of every available opportunity to deepen her understanding of social work, including completing a field placement at the United Way of Greater Augusta. While determining additional needs and gaps in local services, Kabarungi “helped us find common ground for public action and ways to work together to build a stronger and more engaged community,” said United Way CEO Cynthia Pritchard. “Her significant research and work on financial stability have translated to initiatives in our region.”
Under her leadership from 2004–10, the Rwanda chapter of Women for Women International flourished. Although her career path is uncertain, Kabarungi will be well prepared when she returns to her home country.
“My graduation is a very different situation, but, in some ways, I now understand better what those who completed Women for Women International programs felt upon earning their graduation certificates,” Kabarungi said. “The pride, the accomplishment, and the overwhelming gratitude.”
When 18-year-old Selma Elsarrag receives her diploma at Commencement, it will list three majors — biology, chemistry, and mathematics — making official her love of science that has been honed by hard work and patience and with the help of science faculty members.
“The faculty members who work in Pearce Science Center have inspired me while here at MBC,” Elsarrag said. “They have taught me the key critical thinking and writing skills that I believe made me a successful student and budding scientist. More importantly, they’ve all kept my enthusiasm for science and learning alive over the years.”
Elsarrag won top honors in the posters category for her senior project — Supramolecular Interactions between Peptides and a Glycouril-Based Molecular Clip: A Computational Study — at the Capstone Festival May 8, which celebrates the best of undergraduate research at MBC.
This fall, she will enter the combined MD/PhD program at Baylor College of Medicine. She hopes to receive a PhD through the Structural and Computational Biology and Molecular Biophysics program and an MD from the medical school in pursuit of a career as a physician-scientist.
“I feel excited to have achieved this important milestone in life and ready to move forward in my education,” she said. “Nonetheless, I’m preemptively nostalgic for the familiarity of Mary Baldwin and all of the good memories I’ve had with friends here.”
While she has excelled in the academic arena, Elsarrag looks back fondly on the little moments of friendship, campus life, and student leadership that have also defined her time at MBC.
“Working with friends on late-night homework assignments, thinking through a research problem with a professor, taking on student leadership roles as part of the American Chemical Society branch at Mary Baldwin and as an Honor Council Representative, or even just sitting outside and enjoying the scenery are all moments that have made my time at Mary Baldwin special,” Elsarrag said.
Houston high school standout Astrid Salarda ’14 almost did not make it to Mary Baldwin College for a visit during Future Freshmen Weekend in spring 2010. But Texas alumna Cynthia Weir ’68 was convinced that a trip to campus would seal the deal for Salarda, so she and her husband paid for the trip. Four years later, the bright, socially conscious business major will graduate as a member of the Sigma Beta Delta honor society with an internship, a fellowship, and a Capstone project under her belt.
“They took a chance on me,” Salarda said of the Weirs, “and I’m glad that I have made the most of the opportunity and my education here.”
For most of her MBC tenure, Salarda worked closely with Assistant Professor of Business Joe Sprangel, who connected her with a changemaker internship at Rebuilding Together Greater Augusta and guided her during a summer fellowship project that examined a local non-profit organization. Sprangel and Salarda were the only undergraduate pair invited to present their paper generated from that fellowship at the New York University Stern Conference on Social Entrepreneurship.
“Astrid is an example of MBC education at its best,” Sprangel said. “She worked with the faculty and staff to determine what she wanted upon graduation. This led to her leveraging her coursework, community engagement, internships, and faculty collaborations to set herself up with the best opportunity to land her dream job in the non-profit sector.”
In June, Salarda will continue her sustainable business and marketing studies as a participant in George Mason University’s Social Innovation Program. Scholarships from Mary Baldwin’s Spencer Center Endowment and George Mason’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship are helping with her tuition. In the meantime, the Philippines native plans to apply for jobs with non-profit organizations in the Houston area.
At Honors Convocation this spring while awarding Monique Burgess the annual Charlotte Forten Grimké award, Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence Andrea Cornett-Scott summed up the senior’s campus involvement, a hallmark of her time at Mary Baldwin.
Originally from Salisbury, Maryland, Burgess has demonstrated a rich commitment to learning and service, having volunteered in several minority programs on campus, as a peer advisor, and as president of the social work club.
“I will never forget how to help other women and encourage them to reach their goals,” Burgess said. “I am happy to be graduating from MBC. It will be a bittersweet moment, but I do feel prepared to start my career. I am grateful for my college experience.”
Her academic record earned her the highest honor in the social work department as well as induction into Omicron Delta Kappa, Alpha Lambda Delta, and Phi Alpha (the social work honor society). Burgess’s plans include working as a mental health counselor at Foundations Psychiatric Rehabilitation Program in Baltimore.
Sunday will mark a triumphant milestone for Andrea Holman, a young woman whose life has been filled with dramatic highs and lows.
The sociology and psychology double major from Croatia will be the first in her family to earn a degree from an American university. Fourteen years ago, they emigrated to the United States after war devastated their homeland.
Thousands of miles from where she was born, Holman has learned even more about the world, thanks to the opportunities and international connections MBC has afforded. Fulbright-Nehru Visiting Scholar Triveni Mathur inspired Holman this fall, and became her “mother away from home.”
“Dr. Mathur believed in me and pushed me to my full potential, just as my mother has done my entire life,” she said. “I have not met such an intelligent, inspirational, strong — and most importantly, kind — person such as Dr. Mathur in a very long time.”
A defining moment for Holman was in an Evil and Genocide class with Professor of Philosopy Roderic Owen. “I cannot express enough how moving and influential this course and Dr. Owen have been in my life,” Holman said. “I was so inspired to spread awareness about crimes against humanity, and in particular against women and children.”
Her experience at MBC, particularly in Owen’s classes, helped Holman decide to pursue a law degree after graduation so that she may work as a lawyer at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
“MBC has prepared me for higher education and the workforce,” Holman said. “With a little bit of nervousness and a lot more eagerness, I am ready.”
Adult Degree Program
Sixty-six year old Betsy Daniel believes that you should never be so focused on a goal that you forget to enjoy the process of reaching it. “Savor every moment and give your fullest to the task at hand,” she said.
This philosophy has served her well during her 19-year journey in higher education. Like many students in the Adult Degree Program (ADP) at Mary Baldwin, Daniel’s path to Commencement was far from those students with a more traditional college experience.
In 1995, Daniel enrolled in classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC) and was able to double-track courses so they would apply toward both an associate’s degree from PVCC and a bachelor of arts at MBC. Thanks to the flexibility ADP affords students, Daniel was able to attend class — often one course per term — while working full time in computer services at the University of Virginia. This Sunday she will graduate with a major in computer information systems and a minor in business administration.
“I have a sense of great personal accomplishment, and I owe tremendous gratitude to my advisors and professors who shepherded me on my path along the way,” Daniel said. “My advisors inspired me with their careful attention to my life and my program, and each professor inspired me.”
Now retired, and soon to be armed with her diploma, Daniel is looking forward to “decompressing by reading for pleasure” and catching up with the many friends and family who have stood by her and supported her throughout her academic career. She also plans to continue her involvement in her church.
She is also considering a master’s degree.
Graduate Teacher Education
In the weeks leading up to earning her own master of education degree, Teri Maerki, assistant advisor in Mary Baldwin’s Adult Degree Program, watched one daughter receive her college diploma and another say her wedding vows. Her daughter, Katelyn, will earn her BA at MBC’s May 18 Commencement ceremony on the same day that Maerki realizes her goal of earning an advanced degree.
“I’m just glad that my son didn’t add a life event to the mix,” laughed Maerki, mother of four.
Interested in becoming an academic advisor, Maerki began on the MEd track in 2011, before it was an official degree at Mary Baldwin. Her thesis project explored whether students who enter a four-year college after earning their associate’s degree are more likely to graduate than those who do not, closely relating to her work at MBC. In completing her degree, Maerki learned how much she loved institutional research.
“I earned my undergraduate degree as an adult student with children at home,” said Maerki, who started her college career in her native California. “I studied between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., so I know what our adult students are up against.”
Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Shakespeare and Performance
“Since I waited until this late chapter in life to obtain my degree, facing graduation holds both relief and trepidation,” said MFA candidate Riley Steiner. “I am eager to return to my ‘real life’ but at the same time reluctant to leave this oasis from the ‘real world.’”
Before arriving at MBC in fall 2010, Steiner already had a full acting career in Hollywood — with some directing and playwriting gigs — and a daughter studying theatre in college. Thanks to ADP, Steiner found the time and energy to complete her BA in theatre arts and pursue an MFA through MBC’s Shakespeare and Performance (S&P) program. Steiner said she often felt like she was in a heightened version of what her life has been for years: working on a show, prepping for a show, getting over a show. But there were several moments — being in the library close to midnight working on her senior thesis, for instance — that really felt like she was back in school.
“At my little station, I had a pile of books, my laptop, a thermos of tea, a Coke, and a little package of cookies from the vending machine downstairs and I thought, ‘wow, I’m a college student!’”
While at MBC, Steiner directed a Chekhov project, and she and her daughter, Hallie, produced a Strindberg project together and co-directed Ben Jonson’s Volpone for the American Shakespeare Center’s Theatre Camp. She also performed in at least two undergraduate plays, and this year she has had roles in five productions with the MFA company, Rogue Shakespeare.
When Steiner says goodbye to Staunton and the S&P faculty she respects and admires, she will return to Los Angeles for the summer to direct one of her plays and will start looking for teaching jobs.
“It seems like those of us who come back to graduate school later in life, come here with the idea that we have something to prove,” she said. “But I found it more fruitful to think in terms of ‘how can I improve?’ And I think that’s applicable to all stages of life.”