May 10, 2004

The graduate         

By Eric Rangus

Marsha Hendricks keeps a painted tile in her office, one she decorated herself. On it is a motivational saying. She doesn’t know the author who first wrote it. She only knows that it speaks perfectly to her heart, her mind and her experiences.

It reads: “And the time came when the risk to remain closed tight in the bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Hendricks remained has remained closed tight in that bud, for many years. She has raised a family, ridden out some difficult times, worked nine-to-five for close to 20 years in jobs across the Emory campus that while satisfying on many levels never really allowed her to break out.

But today, May 10, 2004, the date of Emory’s 159th Commencement, Hendricks’ time has come and it is her turn to blossom. Today is the day she and the rest of the Emory College Class of 2004 will walk across the Quadrangle stage, shake hands with Dean Bobby Paul and be recognized as graduates of Emory University.

“When I first saw that verse,” said Hendricks of the tile she keeps within arm’s reach at all times in her Alabama Hall office, “I realized this accomplishment.”

For 14 years, Hendricks, administrative assistant in the housing office, has taken classes at Emory toward her bachelor’s degree in religion. Over those 14 years, Hendricks took one class every semester, including summers, missing just two sessions—one to help take care of her sick father and another to help plan her oldest daughter’s wedding. She would complete class readings and homework on weekends or in the evenings after her children had gone to bed. She would walk into class and be mistaken for the professor.

“Circumstances in life are not always easy for everyone,” said Hendricks, who has worked in housing for five years. Before that she worked seven years at Emory Hospital and five with the School of Medicine.

“At different points in my life I have been disregarded by other women my age or even older who have college degrees,” she continued. “Some people have to realize that there are so many variables that affect a person’s life. Things don’t always go traditionally, and it has taken me a very long time to get to where I am.”

Hendricks graduated from the now-defunct Briarwood High School in the early 1970s, near the end of the Vietnam War. She was the type of student who went to college. She had good grades and participated in many clubs as well as the yearbook staff.

Her high school sweetheart joined the Air Force, and just as he was about to ship out, they got married. He got as far as Guam before the war ended, but when he returned to the States, the family situation had changed. Marsha had given birth to their daughter.

She had taken six months’ worth of classes at a small women’s college in Atlanta, but dropped out to raise her family as well as support her husband, who entered college using the GI Bill.

After eight years of marriage, they divorced. After three years as a single mom, she remarried and had two more children, a boy and a girl. When her son was six months old, Hendricks got a job at Emory Hospital in nursing administration.

After a few years on the job, she began thinking about a return to school. Using Emory’s courtesy scholarship for employees, in 1990 she took on the challenge knowing a very long road lay ahead of her. “At first it was overwhelming,” Hendricks said. “But it’s never too late to begin.”

After sampling classes in several subjects, Hendricks settled on a major in religion with a focus in psychology. “I was fascinated by the courses—learning about Judaism, Buddhism, just so many wonderful religions,” she said. “I consider myself a Christian and follow that faith, but learning about other religions has broadened my sense of the different people of the world.”

While Hendricks’ college experience has been anything but traditional, she will wrap up her undergraduate days this summer doing what many traditional students view as a highlight of their college careers: She will be taking a summer study abroad course in England.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Europe but never had the opportunity,” Hendricks said. “I had seen some information and had been dreaming of going, and one of our student workers said, ‘Why don’t you?’”

Taking the class, though, wasn’t as easy as signing onto OPUS and buying a plane ticket. The class, which centers on a psychology study of school-age children in London, will last more than a month—a very long time to be away from work.
Her courtesy scholarship pays for five credits, so tuition is covered. She has to pay other costs, such as room and board, and while they may approach $2,000, Hendricks said it will be worth it.

Finally, Hendricks had to get her time away approved by her supervisors in the housing office. Since she’ll be abroad in June, one of Residence Life’s slower months, her request was approved. Because of her seniority, Hendricks accrues six weeks of vacation each year, so taking four weeks in one lump isn’t that painful.

But before all that, Hendricks has to deal with Commencement, something she sees as bittersweet.

“I wasn’t going to walk at first because I really didn’t feel like a part of the class,” said Hendricks, adding that she reached senior status four years ago, when the Class of 2004 were freshmen. It was the encouragement of a student worker, though, that convinced her to participate.

“Once I started in Residence Life five years ago, I saw how special the Commencement ceremony was,” Hendricks said. “I realized that one day it would be my turn, but the idea of actually walking across the stage has been strange for me. It’s a difficult emotion to express.”

She said she isn’t sure if her family will be able to attend. Her son, a senior in high school, wants to come, but with his schoolwork he may not be able to get away. Instead, Hendricks will be supported by her co-workers and many students she knows.

Because she lacked a mentor growing up and early in her career, Hendricks now stresses the importance of supporting both students and her fellow staff members to continue working on a college degree. “As an employee and going to school, I wanted to be more involved at Emory,” Hendricks said. “But I never felt I should be involved in traditional student organizations.”

So, she joined staff organizations. Hendricks has served three years on Employee Council, four years on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) and is about to rotate off the Women’s Center Advisory Board.

One of her legacies with the PCSW is the Mentor Emory program, which she helped create through a partnership with Human Resources. Mentor Emory brings together female employees—one senior, one junior—where the more experienced staff member helps her junior develop professionally. The program, now in its second year, boasts more than 20 matched pairs. Hendricks is a mentor to Gladys Hooks, a fellow administrative assistant in housing.

But one of her biggest joys is working with her (fellow) students in Residence Life, which employs more than 200 student workers. “It’s one of those feel-good things when student will come in and ask me questions on life,” Hendricks said. “It’s nice to know they respect me.”

Hendricks has kept ties with many former student workers. She hosts some when they visit Atlanta and even travels to their weddings. “The students I’ve worked with are very special to me,” she said. “It’s almost as if they are my children.

“I have become a real advocate for mentoring young women to go to college,” she continued. Hendricks made sure her oldest daughter went and now is helping her son reach that goal. “Life is so much more difficult if you don’t have a college education. I didn’t have it, and I know if I did, it wouldn’t have been such a long road for me.”

Once she receives her degree at the end of the summer—like many graduating seniors, she is a few credits shy of graduation but will still be able to walk—Hendricks may not be done with school. She is interested in earning a master’s degree in counseling and after a few months off may further her education.