Chancellor’s Medal 2023: A ‘capacity to excel’ in the face of personal hardship

When Amanda “Mandy” McCaslin first received the call that she’d been awarded the 2023 Chancellor’s Medal, she cried.

It’s not something she would have ever expected, she said. “I’m honored to be awarded the Chancellor’s Medal. I know that people nominated me, and other people voted for me, and that feels really special — to feel like I’m worthy of this.”

Each year, the Chancellor’s Medal is awarded to a student who has been a consistent source of inspiration for faculty and fellow students alike. These honorees, who have overcome significant obstacles or endured major burdens to complete an undergraduate, graduate or post-baccalaureate degree or certificate program, are nominated by their peers and professors.

“Mandy matches the spirit of the award better than anyone I know at UW Bothell,” said Wendy Zeis (Law, Economics & Public Policy and Society, Ethics & Human Behavior ’23), one of the students who nominated McCaslin for the medal. “She is graduating with honors and has consistently worked through several types of personal hardship while pursuing her degree. I am so impressed by her capacity to excel.”

Earlier this month, McCaslin graduated with a double major in Society, Ethics & Human Behavior and in Psychology as well as a minor in Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies. Achieving not one but two degrees is not an easy feat under the best of circumstances. As with previous medal recipients, McCaslin has risen above numerous challenges to get to where she is today.

A passion for learning

For McCaslin, a self-described lifelong learner, college was always in the picture. As a young child, her dream was to be a singer or an actress. The idea of helping people was also a core value for her from an early age, and her interest in medicine presented another path forward.
“My parents used to put on the UW surgery channel for me to watch as a kid, and I thought, ‘This is exciting. I love this,’” she said.

McCaslin began her college education at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, Washington. While pursuing medical studies, she realized a different aspect of human health was calling to her when she enrolled in a psychology course.

In search of a school that not only offered psychology but also a comprehensive curriculum with opportunities to explore other subjects, she enrolled at UW Bothell.

“Choosing UW Bothell was the best decision I could have made,” she said. “The sense of community I found here has just been incredible. I’ve made lifetime friends. I’ve met incredible professors. I feel like my life changed for the better when I started coming here.”

Becoming a mother

McCaslin started at UW Bothell in spring 2020, right at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Later that year, she also became pregnant with her son, Finnian.

Among the many challenges McCaslin faced completing her undergraduate education, she said, becoming a mother has been both the most challenging and the most rewarding.

Mandy McCaslin and her son, Finnian.

“Finnian is my biggest inspiration. This is my degree, but it’s also his degree,” she said. “It can be really hard at times, and if I didn’t have child care support from my parents, school wouldn’t be possible. It’s also really rewarding because I get to see my son every single day, and I know I have somebody to do this for.”

During her pregnancy, McCaslin also was diagnosed with a stomach infection that kept her hospitalized for most of spring quarter 2021. Yet she continued her studies uninterrupted from her hospital bed. School, for her, became a welcome distraction.

“I really needed to have something else to focus on that wasn’t pain or being sick or spending time in a hospital,” she said. “I wanted to put in my headphones and not hear beeping. I wanted to hear lectures. I wanted to be taken out of the hospital and into something that I enjoy, which is learning and has always been learning.”

Unwavering positivity

Despite the challenges, McCaslin never failed to maintain a positive and upbeat outlook. In their nomination letters, students and faculty commended her for her “unwavering positivity.”

She credits her strong work ethic and positive nature to her family and the choice to always surround herself with people who are happy and positive.

“I find that external factors create you,” she said. “So if I’m around really happy people or people who try to see the bright side of things even when it’s hard, that makes a difference.”

For McCaslin, her greatest influence is her son, who never fails to spark joy and positivity in her. The thought of someday inspiring him in his own education is also what keeps her going. She hopes he will see the obstacles she overcame and be confident that he, too, can accomplish whatever he sets his mind to doing.

Leading the way

In addition to going to school full time while raising her son, McCaslin held down a number of jobs. In 2021, she also began working for Gavin Doyle as a teacher’s assistant in a peer facilitator role.

Doyle, a lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, was among those who nominated McCaslin for the Chancellor’s Medal. He first met her when she enrolled in his Introduction to Acting course.

“I was instantly impressed by her dedication and drive for excellence. In a sea of ‘cameras-off,’ she was the one student who always showed up in every way,” Doyle said in his nomination letter.

After that quarter, Doyle asked McCaslin to return to the class as a peer facilitator. She did and continued to serve in that role until graduation.

“She became my right hand in the acting class. She lived up to all my highest expectations,” Doyle said in his letter. “Each quarter she takes on more and more responsibility. Each quarter her confidence and her ability to work with her peers as a leader grows. … Despite her medical challenges, she continues to have a positive attitude, serve as a light for others and work hard in everything she does.”

In an independent study with Doyle in her final quarter at UW Bothell, McCaslin helped to develop a guidebook so that her work could be continued by future peer mentors.

Providing support

Madison Rutherford, a first-year student at UW Bothell, first met McCaslin in Doyle’s Introduction to Acting course.

“Having Mandy as a TA changed the classroom environment entirely, due to her positive attitude and dedication to helping students thrive,” she said.

Rutherford and McCaslin both live with chronic illness, and the two connected instantly outside of academics over their shared medical struggles and their personal lives.

“Mandy has been by my side through personal battles and has always been there if I need help academically,” Rutherford said. “The minute I saw what the Chancellor’s Medal was all about, nominating Mandy was the most obvious choice for me.

“She embodies the qualities of a leader from top to bottom and has been able to persevere through the most challenging obstacles a human can experience. Mandy deserves to be recognized for all that she’s been through. Her story is inspiring.”

Making an impact

McCaslin’s work as a peer facilitator has left an impact on the students she mentored, and it’s this kind of impact she hopes to have in her career.

“I want my impact to be happiness and positivity,” she said. “I really want to make a difference, and I want my impact to be related to students and their outlook on their lives.”

McCaslin is interested in working with children as a therapist, particularly with kids transitioning out of the juvenile detention system.

“I really want to help at-risk kids set a better path and to help lower the risk of reentry into the system. I think there’s just so much power and value in helping kids with whatever they need,” she said.

Her own son, Finnian, has in part inspired this goal. “I want to help him grow to be the best that he can be and the happiest that he can be, and I want to do that with other kids, too,” she said.

After graduation, McCaslin said she plans to continue her education in some way — but not before taking a much-deserved break to spend time with her son.

Learn more about McCaslin’s UW Bothell experience in this video.

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