By N.L. Sweeney
When Maizy Brown first visited the University of Washington campus in Seattle in 1992, she dreamed of one day becoming a university student despite the fact she was 15 years old, a high school dropout and didn’t have a permanent home. She wandered the grounds carrying a backpack, read books in the library and relaxed in the campus café.
“I loved feeling like I belonged, and I felt smart,” said Brown. “I had never seen so many books in my life! I really wanted to be a student.”
She would eventually enroll and get her GED at Edmonds Community College before turning her sights on entering UW Bothell. She got accepted and graduated in 2011 with a degree in Environmental Studies.
Carving a powerful path
The road to university was not a smooth one. Brown began a life on the streets after a childhood spent in a trauma-filled home. “On the streets, I had people around me who cared,” she said. “While there were also people who yelled at me or threw slushies in my face, it was better than the life I had. In fact, it was a constant party.”
Brown had her first child in 1996, although because of her life circumstances she made the difficult decision to give her daughter up for adoption. Three years later, she had her second daughter and lived with her in a room at the YWCA’s Pathways for Women in Lynnwood, Washington.
Desperate not to end up back on the streets, she decided to return to school. But it didn’t go well at first.
“I constantly felt like I didn’t belong,” she said. “Other students knew all these things I had never learned.”
What she did know was she needed to find a way to make it work. With help from people on campus and her own Native community, Brown was able to gain a self-confidence that would carry her through the task of completing her GED. “I learned that reaching out is one of the bravest, most powerful things you can do for yourself.”
What she also realized is that her years on the streets and a natural determination gave her the skills she needed to not only to survive but thrive.
Brown continued taking classes at Edmonds after she completed her GED in 2002. Soon it was time to make her way to the university of her dreams.
She chose UW Bothell because of its size. “I wanted a school where my professors would know my name,” she said.
Taking the next step
When Brown got to her first class, she worried she’d made a grave mistake. “Like at Edmonds, everyone knew so much more than I did,” she said. “I felt like an impostor. I didn’t think I deserved a place on campus. I kept hearing my past teachers telling me, ‘School is not for you.’”
Her determination won out again. Brown connected with her faculty in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences for advice, and they helped her change her perspective. She discovered, for example, that she knew the material — such as the names of plants in the North Creek Forest from having spent so much time outdoors — but not the science behind the concepts discussed in class. “I was street smart, not book smart.”
Thanks to her professors, she embraced the notion that her grit, not her GPA, was her greatest strength.
“Martha Groom, who most of my classes were with, taught me that what mattered was that I showed up in class with enthusiasm and a willingness to learn,” she said.
And while she failed a class taught by IAS Associate Professor Warren Gold, she values how much learned from him. “It was the first time I didn’t feel shame or guilt about my circumstances,” said Brown. “In the North Creek Forest, Warren made me feel like I belonged, that my life experiences as a first-generation, Native and formerly homeless single mom gave me something worth sharing.
“I had never looked at my life as full of rich stories that could actually benefit others.”
Brown also got her first-ever 4.0 at UW Bothell in a class with Lecturer Amy Lambert. “Amy combined art and restoration in a way that blew my mind,” she said. “The cross-disciplinary nature of that class opened up so many possibilities for me.”
Rewriting the narrative
Opening-up to her classmates also helped Brown solidify her place among her college peers. “When there were things I didn’t know in class, I asked them for help.”
When she did, she was surprised to find there were others like her who were raising a child alone. “We came together and formed a little co-op,” she said. “We took turns watching each other’s kids, went to the library together and helped edit each other’s papers.”
After graduation, Brown returned to Edmonds Community College where she now works as a case manager providing support to non-traditional students facing barriers to completing their education.
“I’ve walked in their shoes,” she said.
At work, she applies what she learned from her professors while in college. “I know to bring kindness to those who are struggling,” she said, noting that she encourages her students to reconsider the stories they tell about themselves.
As an example, Brown shares her what she calls her “cheeseburger binder” — a tool she created for motivation. Inside, she listed the reasons why she was going to college and then referred to them when self-disparaging thoughts came to mind.
It was the cover, however, that provided the greatest impetus. “There’s a picture of a cheeseburger and a picture of my daughter,” she said. “That binder reminded me that I wanted a better life for her, and I couldn’t make that happen working in fast food.”
Brown now has another dream: She has applied to the Master of Education program at UW Bothell with a plan to focus on Critical Educational Change and Leadership. Over the nine years since graduation, the voices of Groom, Gold and Lambert have been ringing in her ears, encouraging her to continue her education.
“Although I failed a class, my professors never failed me,” she said.
“And I didn’t fail my daughters. I’ve reconnected with my first daughter, and my second has applied to UW Bothell. My dream is to attend classes with her in the fall.”