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NewsMay 5, 2021

After 20 years, pandemic pushes former Lesley student to complete degree

Alice Smith ’21 accomplishes graduation dream

Alice Smith in graduation gown outside in front of blooming tree.
Alice Smith is graduating this year after leaving Lesley before completing her bachelor's degree in 2001.

By Georgia Sparling

When she left Lesley in the winter of 2001, Alice Smith thought she’d be back by the fall semester. She was just one term away from getting her bachelor’s degree in elementary education, but ongoing stress at home had left her drained and her bank account was approaching zero. Then, while in her first class of senior year, airplanes struck the World Trade Center.

“That kind of just sent me over the edge. Emotionally, I was done. I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she says.

After finals that winter, Smith packed up her dorm room on Mellen Street and spent what would have been her final semester at Lesley working as a substitute teacher instead.

“I had all intentions of coming back, but you get put into the real world,” she says.

To be fair, this wasn’t Smith’s first introduction to the real world. Growing up, she’d had a tough home life with frequent visits from the Department of Children and Families. Her father’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder and drug abuse led to tense and sometimes violent episodes.

Smith recalls the Christmas of her freshman year when her father became so unstable that she had to call the police. He spent a few days in jail, but when her mother failed to obtain a restraining order, he returned to their house.

“So, I had nowhere to live. I was essentially homeless,” she says. Dorms were closed, but Lesley connected her with older students who had a house near campus and an extra room where she could stay for the rest of the break.

Alice Smith her freshman year outside of her dorm door
Alice Smith stands outside her dorm room in White Hall freshman year.

“Those demons eventually catch up to you,” Smith says. “I tried to battle through, and I got all the way to my senior year.”

She says counselors were available to students on campus, but at the time, she wasn’t ready to face the trauma and anxiety.

Back in the classroom

Earning money as a substitute teacher and working with children was a reprieve for Smith. When summer came and primary schools closed, she found a job as an assistant teacher for toddlers at a daycare in Malden, Massachusetts, her hometown. Early childhood education had never interested Smith, but she says, “I fell in love with it and worked my way up the ladder.”

Smith did go back to school. This time to Bunker Hill Community College to get an associate degree in early childhood education, which gave her the schooling to become an executive director at a daycare — first at the YMCA, then directing several Little Sprouts schools, an early education company based in New England. From there, Smith helped establish a new branch of the Primrose Schools, an accredited early childhood school company, in Chelmsford.

She also got married and had a daughter, the first student enrolled at her Primrose School. While she loved her job, when Smith saw her toddler walk into a classroom where she would be taught by someone else, she decided it was time to take a break from her job.

“I was a toddler teacher, I got to do that for other people’s families and other people’s kids, and I wasn’t doing it for my own,” she says.

Smith took a job as a nanny, which allowed her to care for her own daughter while still earning an income. Then, the pandemic hit and in the tumult of lockdown, Smith suddenly decided it was time to finish what she’d started at Lesley two decades before.

“I’m the type of student I always knew
I was on the inside... It’s fun to be that girl.”
Alice Smith ’21, Lesley Center for the Adult Learner

“This has been hanging over my head as unfinished business,” she says. “I think it’s important for my daughter to see that while I didn’t graduate when I was supposed to, I still went back and I finished, showing her that I completed it so she could be proud of me.”

With her transcripts from Bunker Hill and her 3½ years at Lesley, Smith only needed two courses to complete a degree in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Elementary Education. She enrolled through the Lesley Center for the Adult Learner (LCAL) and began classes in February – all online due to the pandemic.

“It would have been great to drive into Cambridge, put my student hat on and been able to go to class surrounded by teenagers,” she jokes.

Becoming ‘that student’

Online learning has taken some getting used to, along with lots of new education terms and acronyms, but she has a support team now and it has made all the difference.

Her three best friends from college are now teachers and have been on call to help and her husband, mom and sister have encouraged her decision to finish her degree. Smith’s father, with whom she eventually reconciled, died in 2015.

In class, Smith says she’s “that student,” the one who isn’t afraid to speak up and answer questions. Before, she was the one asking for extensions, now she stays late to ask more questions.

“I’m the type of student I always knew I was on the inside but just couldn’t be my full potential,” she says. “It’s fun to be that girl.”

Looking back, Smith doesn’t regret leaving when she did. It was that decision that led her to early childhood education and a career she loved. As she looks ahead, she only sees possibilities.

“I can go on and get my master’s degree in whatever I want,” she says. Smith thinks she’ll stay in education. “Maybe I’ll be an elementary teacher. Friends tell me I should be a principal. I want to teach college. I want to teach it all.”