Imagine having no dream. That’s where Tracy Shatwell found herself after graduating from high school.
Much has changed for the 30-year-old Air National Guard technical sergeant who graduates from University of Arkansas at Little Rock on Dec. 16 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a minor in Spanish. For her, commencement is more than getting a degree; it’s about realizing a dream.
Tracy wasn’t a kid destined for college. In fact, the opposite was true. Her father finished 11th grade, and no one in her family had gone to college, so she didn’t see it as relevant.
“I was even offered a scholarship in high school, but since education was not emphasized, I didn’t take advantage of it,” she said.
Tracy and her twin sister, Stacy, and their older brother, Shawn, grew up in poverty in Valley Springs in Northwest Arkansas, raised by their father and grandmother. After Tracy finished high school, she lived with her Aunt Edie and became close friends with Edie’s daughters.
“I watched them, and I realized they were all dreamers,” Tracy recalled. “And then I realized that I wasn’t. I didn’t think beyond the right now. As I was growing up, the belief was that if you’re surviving, you’re good.”
That was the moment that changed her – the moment she realized she wanted her life to be about more than just survival.
She enrolled at North Arkansas College in Harrison and used Pell Grant money to pay for college. After two years there, she joined the Air National Guard in 2011 and moved to Little Rock. She is currently part of the U.S. Air National Guard 123rd Intelligence Squadron out of Fort Smith and is a geospatial intelligence analyst. She goes to Fort Smith one weekend a month and two weeks during the year for training.
“My military service put a five-year gap in my journey, but eventually it allowed me to attend school full-time with no debt,” she said. “I was an average student in high school, so it was important to me to attend college full-time and get a thorough education.”
She worked at a counseling center for two years, so when she enrolled at UA Little Rock, she knew that she wanted to study psychology in hopes of one day being a counselor.
“I only learned the term ‘first-generation’ when I got here,” she said. “I didn’t understand that I was at a potential disadvantage.”
Reflecting on her childhood, she understands how poverty impacted her family.
“Growing up, we just didn’t ask for things,” she said. “We were Angel Tree children.”
She and her siblings relied on the generosity of neighbors, teachers, school resource officers and church members for Christmas gifts and other things.
Her fourth-grade teacher, Tami Rider Burcham, continued to give her Valentines, even after she had moved on from fourth grade. In ninth grade, art teacher Laurie Lawhon Jones showed up at her house with a prom dress. When she was a senior, her yearbook was purchased anonymously for her.
“I think about these moments,” she said. “There were so many people involved in our lives. Though time has passed, it still means so much to me.”
It may also be why Tracy feels drawn to helping others.
After graduation, she plans to look for casework jobs. Next fall, she may begin the Master of Social Work in hopes of being a counselor.
“I want the experience of listening to and helping people find answers. I love that,” she said.
On Saturday, the former “C” student graduates magna cum laude. She will have lots of people in the audience cheering her on: Her twin is traveling from Memphis. Her brother in Little Rock and her father, who lives in Harrison, will be present. Tami Rider Burcham, the fourth-grade teacher who is now assistant principal at Ida Burns Elementary in Conway, plans to be there as well as high school art teacher Laurie Lawhon Jones.
“Numerous faculty and administration helped me along the way as I stumbled through decisions, paperwork, and how to find resources,” Tracy said. “I thank God for His guidance and the gifts He put in me to share with the world. I worked really hard on school. I set out to accomplish something important to me. I’m proud to be able to say that I’m proud of me!”