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Courtney Thompson on campus

Fear was always present. Finances were in short supply. Doubt crept into her mind. Somehow, Courtney Thompson ’23 — who describes herself as a single mom of four children — persisted.

In May, 11 years after her journey began, Courtney slowly walked across the stage inside the Dyson Baudo Recreation Center to receive her diploma for a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology.

“It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” she says. “It was a proud moment, and I could see my mom, brother and kids. I had imagined that moment the entire time I was in college. I actually had a speech in my head that I would have loved to share, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to speak.”

While Courtney may have had reservations about her abilities and if she could complete her degree requirements, her faculty mentors were impressed by the sacrifices she made.

“Courtney was the type of student that makes me love my job — although she lacked confidence in her abilities, she was a hard worker and knew when and how to ask for help,” says Dr. Katy Lustofin, Associate Professor of Biology. “It was also clear that she loves learning. I could see how delighted she was when she struggled with something and then figured it out and that always brought me joy.”

Dr. Steve Spilatro, McCoy Professor of Biology, added: “I can only offer praise and admiration for Courtney’s success. She demonstrated tenacity in completing her degree with a perpetual cheerfulness that concealed the numerous challenges that she needed to overcome.” 

Since graduating, Courtney was able to move her family out of a subsidized apartment into a bigger and nicer house, and is working at Family and Children First as a Home Visitor for Help Me Grow.

“My oldest child, my daughter Kaydance, was part of this program when she was young and I saw how much it helped,” Courtney says.

Courtney dreams of going back to school for a master’s degree in physician assistant studies or occupational therapy. But the 30-year-old must put that on hold for now.

“Right now, I need to be a mom and have a full-time job,” she says. “I worked only part-time when I was in school, and I can’t see any way I could do that right now. It was a struggle. I honestly believe that a big reason why I was able to complete my degree at Marietta was because I had professors like Dr. (Steve) Spilatro, Dr. Lustofin and Dr. (Bonnie) Martinez believing in me and supporting me.”

Martinez, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, related to what Courtney was experiencing.

“We immediately clicked when it came to backgrounds — already having children and trying to obtain a degree,” Martinez says. “We kept in touch throughout her undergraduate years, not only because she was in several of my classes, but also, because I knew her struggles were similar to mine, and I was invested in her success.”

Courtney would often stop by Martinez’s office so they could catch up or to seek advice. 

“One of the biggest obstacles was carving out time to study and to participate with outside of class activities at the College — like working on group projects,” Martinez says. “I was able to give her tips that I used when it came to finding times to study and to also manage all the other household tasks that come with taking care of young children. … She was one of my best students. I love to see students overcome the mindset that ‘once you have children, it’s impossible to get a college degree.’ Courtney definitely is a role model for fellow students that already have their own family.”

The advice and pep talks were exactly what Courtney needed.

“My experience was different than most of the students in my classes,” Courtney says. “While they were planning for fun weekends and evenings with friends, I had to find time to study, take care of my children and work. I don’t brag, but I don’t make excuses. I show respect by showing up for class and doing what is expected. I also respected my professors for allowing me to bring a child to class if I couldn’t find daycare, and for understanding that doctor’s appointments would sometimes conflict with class.”

Lustofin was so impressed with Courtney that she nominated her for The Schmidt Prize, which is given annually to a graduate who, regardless of academic standing, demonstrated the strongest desire to complete their education. Courtney was one of two recipients.

“Throughout it all, Courtney was a joy to have in the classroom, even when life wasn’t giving her much joy,” Lustofin says. “I don’t think she gave herself enough credit for her own perseverance and determination.”

Courtney’s journey to receiving a bachelor’s degree started in 2012 when she enrolled in Washington State Community College. In 2015, she earned an associate degree in early childhood development, while working at the daycare center on WSCC’s campus.

“While working at Ely Chapman (a local after-school center), I had several friends who were going to Marietta College, and they kept telling me I should go there, too,” Courtney says.

By 2017, she applied to Marietta and, to her surprise, was accepted. Courtney started in the Education program, but soon learned that she was more adept at the sciences.

“I saw this poster in the hallway that said a degree in Biology could lead to all these different careers, so in 2019 I switched to Biology,” she says.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, she had to take a break because her children needed her at home as schools around the nation switched to remote learning. She also found out she was pregnant with her son Briar, who is now 3. She also has two other sons, Brentley, 10, and Zaiden, 8.

She wondered if she would ever be able to finish her degree. It was her children who motivated her to move forward.

“I had to take a year off, but I also brought my kids to campus any opportunity I had so they would be familiar with campus life,” Courtney says. “They got to see me struggle, but they also got to see me succeed.”

Her commitment to finishing her degree hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“When it’s hard in school, I think about how long she worked for it and what she did and I know then I can do it, too,” says Kaydance, 12.