AUSTIN, Texas—Marcia McCallum graduated from high school in 1983. She decided to continue her education 29 years later. A lot of life happened in between.
She gave birth to and raised four children, and she welcomed two grandchildren. Her family moved from Texas to Nebraska and then returned to Texas. She separated from her husband.
She also waited tables to help with the family finances, drove kids to soccer practice and swim meets, opened her home to gatherings of her children and their friends.
“I was your typical soccer mom,” she said recently. “But I kind of had a feeling there was something out there, waiting for me.”
In 2012, she found that something: higher education. After sending her second-oldest child off to college, Marcia, then 48, decided to enroll at Austin Community College.
She vividly remembers one of her first experiences at the college as she waited to pick up her student identification card. “When I went to get my ID for the first time, the boy who was behind me in line—he was probably 19—said, ‘Ma’am, if your child isn’t here, can I go ahead of you in line?’
“You can’t believe what it was like on the very first day of class,” she said. “They (other students) think I’m the professor. When I sit down with them, they are surprised.”
McCallum started slowly, taking an elementary algebra course during a six-week summer session. She said she was surprised to realize how much math she had forgotten. Her oldest daughter, Ashton, helped, making flash cards to refresh McCallum’s memory of key concepts. Her other children—daughters Jordan and Megan and son Jon—were “very supportive.”
“They were maybe a little skeptical, but once I got into the second and third semesters, they were my biggest cheerleaders,” said McCallum, now 52 and the grandmother of four.
She continued to work full-time during her first year, ratcheting up her academic load from one course, to two and then, by her fourth semester, to full time. Her schedule was daunting. In addition to being a full-time student, she worked each Friday, Saturday and Sunday as a waitress, with double shifts on Saturdays and Sundays. She did that for two semesters before cutting back to just one double shift, on Sundays.
“Things were a little tight … yes,” she recalls.
McCallum initially thought she wanted to become a nurse, so she started with courses in anatomy and physiology. That’s when she began to believe in herself as a student.
“I never thought school was for me, and now I love it,” she said. “I think the change came when I got that first 90 on a test in introductory anatomy and physiology.”
After a first experience doing work in a laboratory, McCallum decided to switch her major to biotechnology. She started to excel as a student.
“I decided I don’t agree with the slogan ‘C’s get degrees,’” she said. “I believe you need to get your A game up there and get some A’s. I am very competitive, but I am really competitive with myself.”
As she worked toward completing her associate degree in applied science and biotechnology, which she finished in August 2016, McCallum took on another project: helping to set up Austin Community College’s new Bioscience Incubator lab in a converted shopping mall building on the college’s Highland campus.
The lab, which opened in February 2017, affords students “graduate-level research, which is unique for a two-year college,” said Tyler Drake, director of the Bioscience Incubator. Space is also rented out to start-ups and other local firms that can’t afford their own labs.
Nancy Lyon, the lab coordinator, said her team had already selected an intern before meeting McCallum, but decided to add a second.
“It was her personality and enthusiasm,” said Lyon, who previously taught for 16 years at the nearby University of Texas campus. “What you see is what you get (with Marcia), and what you get is really good.
“We hired a student, and she makes us look good,” Lyon said.
McCallum is now working toward an additional associate degree, in general science. She takes three courses online through Austin Community College so she “can call up courses at 4 in the morning, if I need to.”
She also works in the bioscience lab and does contract work for 20 or more hours per week with a start-up biotechnology company located near the Highland campus. She continues to work as a waitress, although for fewer hours than in the past.
It’s a grueling schedule, and she admits she had second thoughts about continuing after obtaining her first associate degree.
“I almost took a break after I got that degree, but my son (Jon) said: ‘No, don’t stop.’ He thought I’d get a job and get into the workforce and not have the same commitment,” McCallum said.
But now that the end is in sight for her career at Austin Community College, she’s thinking of higher goals.
“I would love to apply to college and maybe get a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “I would love to go to UT. We have a family legacy there.” Her grandfather was a professor at the University of Texas, and son Jon has two degrees from the university.
Stories like McCallum’s are inspiring—to the leaders at her college and to her family.
“These students, I don’t know how they make it,” said Richard Rhodes, Austin Community College’s president and CEO. “It’s sheer tenacity and grit. They really have to want it to overcome unimaginable barriers.”
Jon McCallum, Marcia’s son, said that “seeing my mom go through school after having raised four kids and essentially starting over is a kind of testament to how hard work and persistence can really pay off. From what I can tell and I can see, she’s a success, no matter how long it took.”
Marcia begins to choke up when she thinks of what she’s been through.
“It’s been … well, I can’t even put it into words,” she said, as tears welled up in her eyes. “It’s a feeling that gets stuck right here,” McCallum said, pointing to her heart.