UI student overcomes instability to pursue career in elementary education
Thursday, December 19, 2013

Aundrea Watkins says her life has been a series of interruptions.

The University of Iowa elementary education major says that life has thrown her a series of curve balls that might have slowed down or stopped many students from making it this far.

But not Watkins.

Despite enduring violence and instability as she grew up, Watkins has persevered and faces each day with a huge smile, a hunger to learn more, and a commitment to helping other students from all walks of life.

Bounced between almost a dozen homes between the ages of 3 and 18, this first-generation college student found school to be the one constant in her life.

"School was my safe haven, my sanctuary, and the only true stability I had growing up," says the 24-year-old Quad Cities native, who adds that school allowed her naturally optimistic and extroverted personality to come through.

She says she wants to provide the support and inspiration provided by her teachers to her own future students.

Watkins still remembers every teacher she had in elementary, middle, and high school. Each had a profound impact on her life. They challenged, supported, and affirmed her in ways her family members did not.

Her father was imprisoned for four years on drug charges when Watkins was 9 to 13 years old. Though they were earlier estranged, Watkins has since forgiven her father, and they have reconciled their rocky relationship.

"I want to help students keep that passion for learning alive and keep them motivated."
—Aundrea Watkins, elementary education major and December 2013 UI graduate

In fact, her father is now a student at Scott Community College in Bettendorf, studying to become a chef. And he, along with her sister and several other family members, plan to be on campus Dec. 21 when Watkins walks across the stage during the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony.

Watkins will receive her elementary education program completion certificate through the UI College of Education, one of almost 100 students receiving certificates this December.

The path to getting her degree wasn't easy.

Watkins recalls family members tearing up information about college that arrived in the mail to deter her from applying. And because both parents were unemployed, financing an education seemed impossible. Watkins worked several jobs just to help her family make ends meet.

No one in her immediate family had ever attended college. She had no idea what the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as FAFSA, was or where to start looking to select a college, let alone finance her education.

She says dropping out and doing drugs could have been a natural path for her. Instead, Watkins put her energy into school, where she excelled. She was a member of the National Honor Society and math club, and she sang in choir. Her favorite courses were in math and science.

"I was always the kid who asked questions and loved learning," Watkins says. "My friends were the ones who were learning, and I wanted to learn and grow with them."

She also found faith. Brian and Crista Devore, loving adopted godparents through her church, helped her believe in herself and to want more out of life.

"They just wanted to be a pivotal part of my life—their knowledge and understanding of God helped me transition into school," Watkins says. "They saw something in me, and they valued me, and wanted me to be a part of their lives. They are a big part of the reason that I am here at Iowa. It's been a long journey."

Caring educators also saw Watkins' potential. Some offered emotional support. Others offered resources and access to technology to make her college search possible. One teacher helped her research college options and apply online, knowing she had no other computer access because she was either in school or working while the public library was open.

The real turning point occurred when Scott Moore, then a student in the UI College of Education, visited Watkins' high school. Moore told Watkins, a senior at the time, about his visit to Germany through Camp Adventure, a program run by the University of Northern Iowa—but offered to UI students —that sends American college students to American military bases, embassies, and British Military installations throughout the world. These students run day camps, swim lessons, as well as overnight and sports camps and child development centers.

The idea of traveling to other countries and working with youth enthralled Watkins, who had never traveled beyond the United Sates. She was hooked. She wanted to be a Hawkeye and have some of the same experiences Moore had while at the UI.

Easing the financial burden

Though she entered with more than $20,000 in debt her freshmen year, she was fortunate to connect with Rachel Gatewood, senior multicultural specialist with the Center for Diversity and Enrichment in the UI Chief Diversity Office. Gatewood mentored Watkins and connected her to other campus resources to help ease her financial burden.

Working with the UI Office of Student Financial Aid, Watkins received a number of grants and fellowships including the Pell Grant and other federal loans, a state IMAGES grant, and direct UI support through an Advantage Iowa scholarship.

Cindy Seyfer, senior associate director of UI Student Financial Aid, was so impressed with Watkins that she nominated her for the Iowa Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators Student Success Story of the Year Award.

Seyfer wrote in her nomination, "Aundrea worked hard to be admitted to Iowa and to succeed here. At times, her family pulls her back but she keeps her eyes on the goal of a degree knowing that she will be better equipped to help herself and others with her degree.

"One semester she had to drop a few classes when she needed to help with a brother who was in trouble with the legal system and being incarcerated. Aundrea is a kind soul and has, at times, helped her half-sister who had her first baby at age 15 and now has two more children. Aundrea does what she can to prevent her sister’s kids from having the kind of unstable living arrangements that she did as a child."

Watkins won the award, hands down.

Just this fall, Watkins also took on the role of fostering one of her nephews because of instability in her sister's life. So in addition to being a UI student and working at the Office of the Registrar, she ensured that her 7-year-old nephew got to school, did his homework, and had healthy meals and an active social life.

Tenacity to teach

While it has taken Watkins six years to graduate, Seyfer says she represents a success story for the UI and a great example of what student financial aid can do to transform lives.

In fact, Watkins is the exact kind of student that UI President Sally Mason was talking about, Seyfer says, when she met with White House officials earlier this fall to discuss ways the UI can attract more academically talented students from low-income families.

"Without the financial assistance, I never, ever could have done this," Watkins says.

With the blend of grants, fellowships, and scholarships, Watkins was able to focus on her class work and get involved in various groups on campus such as the UI's gospel choir Voices of Soul and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which she got involved with because of the UI's Pick One program.

Aundrea Watkins holds a baby in a Romanian orphanage
Aundrea Watkins bonds with a baby at an orphanage in Romania during an Iowa Voyagers program trip in May 2011. Photo courtesy of Aundrea Watkins.

And she did eventually get to travel to other countries. Through the Iowa Voyagers program operated by the UI Alumni Association, she traveled to Romania, where she helped care for young people in an orphanage. She later traveled to China through Camp Adventure where she taught lessons to students at the Beijing Chinese International School. Watkins says these experiences helped her be more cognizant of language and finding different ways to communicate.

While at the UI, Watkins has worked at a local daycare, the Good Shepherd Center in Iowa City, from 2008 to January of 2013 as well as at the Rock Island Arsenal, a job she started while in high school thanks to a program, Shades of Success/Boys to Men. She continues to work in the UI Office of the Registrar, where she credits Larry Lockwood as being a mentor and role model. She also credits Susan Lagos-Lavenz, associate dean in the UI College of Education, for providing outstanding support and guidance.

She also completed her practicum at Lincoln Elementary School in spring 2013.

Though Watkins started out wanting to be an elementary or secondary math teacher, she changed her emphasis to reading. The irony, she says, is that math and science were always her strongest areas, and she struggled more with reading, calling herself a slow reader.

"I can definitely identify with these students, thinking that reading is all about fluency and being correct," Watkins says. "I can focus more so on comprehension versus speed. I can say, 'I've been in your shoes.'"

Paying it forward

Though she has struggled at times— having to retake several classes when she had to help out family members in rough spots—she remained committed to her goal of graduating and becoming a teacher.

Her future plans include exploring joining the Peace Corps or potentially teaching at a school district in Iowa or the Chicago area since she participated in an alternative spring break course in Chicago.

"I want to help students keep that passion for learning alive and keep them motivated," Watkins says.

Watkins adds that she's cognizant of the fact that she likely will be one of few black teachers in the classroom if she teaches in the United States, given the racial demographics of teachers nationally.

"It's very important that other students of different racial backgrounds know that they can reach those levels of success, whether it's being an educator, a doctor, or whatever they want to be in life," Watkins says. "It's important for them to see others like them in that leadership role."

If there is anything that Watkins has learned, it's this: Don't let life’s interruptions stop you from pursuing your dreams, no matter what gets in your way.

"Life is going to bring you interruptions, and you need to make a choice on how you're going to respond and deal with those interruptions," Watkins says. "Sure, I could be bitter or angry about my life or taking longer to graduate, but I have experienced so many things, and I've met so many great people, and I'm going to be crying when I walk across that stage."

To read a related story, visit UI commencement ceremonies Dec. 20-21.