Kathryn Grande's story is one of resilience, perseverance, and self-discovery. When she started at UMass Dartmouth as an on-campus student in the fall of 2008, she faced a difficult set of circumstances. Between multiple deaths in her family, an abusive relationship, and a self-described lack of identity, she recalls looking for an excuse to leave UMassD after her sophomore year.
Ten years later, a changed person with a new sense of identity and drive, she decided to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to finish her education online. Now, she's set to graduate closing her undergraduate career with five consecutive Chancellor's List appearances (min. 3.8 GPA) en route to a graduate degree in education and a career in guidance counseling.
A passion for education
Between stints at UMassD, Grande found a job as a substitute teacher at her alma mater, New Bedford High School, where she says she discovered a passion for working with students. This led her to decide she wanted to work in education in some capacity, which would require the completion of her college degree.
"For the first time, I had a real vision for myself," said Grande. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to teach or counsel, but I knew I wanted to work in a school setting."
In 2016, just as her vision began to take shape, Grande lost her father.
"Losing my dad completely devastated me and it threatened my hard-earned progress," said Grande. "But I refused to let it be an excuse. My dad was everything to me, and he wanted nothing more than for me to finish school and build myself a beautiful life. After his death, I vowed to do just that."
Grande used this motivation to shift into a full-time position for the school, working as a secretary in close correspondence with the guidance staff, building up her résumé and getting exposure to counseling in education. When the COVID-19 pandemic sent the school remote, she saw online learning at UMassD as an opportunity to finish her degree on her schedule, while maintaining a full-time role at New Bedford High School.
Kathryn Grande, now married, first attended UMassD under her maiden name, Katie Lewin. Coming back to UMassD after 10 years, as a married woman with a new last name, and a new sense of purpose, after an unimaginable loss, she penned a brand-new chapter for herself.
"Reenrolling at UMassD was a challenging yet cathartic experience for me," said Grande. "I had to face everything Katie Lewin left behind—everything I had been running from. But I quickly realized that Katie Lewin wasn’t holding me back, she was preparing me to do what she couldn’t. Instead of running from her, I needed to run toward her, heal her, and take her with me because she is part of me. It is because of her failed relationships that I married my soulmate. It is because of her academic struggles that I am on the Chancellor’s List. It is because of her self-doubt that I have self-value. I rose from her ashes."
Where Grande's first stint at UMassD was marked by external factors distracting from her curriculum, this time around her drive and passion have led her to nearly straight A+'s, recently winning a scholarship for the senior with the highest GPA in the English major (Literature and Criticism - online BA).
"It's been an indescribable feeling to reach my full academic potential,” said Grande. "There's so much to be said about being able to advocate for yourself and knowing who you are. I'm so proud that I've been able to turn things around full force on my journey to becoming."
As proud as she is of the turnaround in her grades, the feeling of confidence that followed has allowed Grande to achieve a sort of self-actualization regarding her studies.
"I've worked really hard, and the payoff has been incredible, but it's not even about the grades anymore. It's about what I'm taking away from my education. Over these last few years, I have become more persuasive, concise, articulate, and worldly. I am a stronger reader, writer, thinker, and ally, too. I’m open to new ideas because I want to broaden my perspective and I'm willing to put in the work because I genuinely value education, enrichment, allyship, and advocacy. I’ve certainly grown as a student, but more importantly, I’ve grown as a human being."
Still working full time at New Bedford High School, Grande needed a curriculum that could fit around her work schedule, but also one that connected her with professors who could support her application to further studies.
"Being able to advocate for myself and reach out to my professors in this online setting makes me feel like no less of a UMassD student than my in-person counterparts," said Grande. "I've been able to dive into topics I'm interested in and discuss my career goals with my professors as if I was in a classroom with them. I’ve even come to campus to meet with them in person a few times which has been lovely."
Despite meeting primarily online, Grande built especially strong relationships with Associate Professors Shari Evans and Jay Zysk, who recommended her to present some of her work at the Massachusetts Undergraduate Research Conference on Friday, April 28.
"The technological advancement over the past 10 years has made building these connections virtually much easier. When I was first a student here, I didn't even have a laptop. Signing into COIN was a challenge on its own. Now, scheduling a meeting is just a click away. The faculty really make themselves available to us both online and in person, and I've never had any trouble getting in touch with them."
While Grande believes she could have succeeded this time around in an in-person format as well, she credits online learning's accessibility with fitting her productivity schedule.
"I've always been most productive and creative at night, and most day classes K-12 through college don't support that," said Grande. "Online classes allow me to build a schedule that fits my learning and supports my theory that time is relative."
What was your favorite class?
"Any and all with Professor Zysk and Professor Evans. Critical Theory, Shakespeare, and Food, Culture and Literature with Professor Zysk, and Contemporary Native American Lit, the English Capstone, and Literary Methods with Professor Evans."
Do you have a favorite memory here?
"Opening the email saying I won the scholarship for highest GPA in the major. That was a chaotic, stressful day and I received that email in between my two URC presentations. It made my heart soar to see that my hard work has paid off."
Do you think you made the right choice coming back to school and picking UMassD?
"Absolutely. Walking across that stage next week will be the ultimate full-circle moment for me. There is no where else I would have rather done this."
What's next for you?
"I'm looking at master's programs in education that have a focus on school counseling. I'd like to become a high school guidance counselor after completing my education."
How prepared do you feel to enter the next phase of your life?
"The most prepared. I think my secretarial role prepared me well for the type of work I want to do, and finishing this degree in the way that I have has given me the sense of confidence to do just about anything."
What advice do you have for others considering going back to school?
"Wait until you’re ready and then do it with all of your might. Don’t allow past failures to hold you back – use them, learn from them, and through it all, love yourself, heal yourself, and take every last part of you to the finish line."
Is there anyone you want to shout out who has contributed to your successes?
"My husband, Chris. He is my rock. He pushes me and believes in me, and he picks me up whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or exhausted. He has taken on the 'everyday' responsibilities so I could dedicate myself to my studies, and he has never once complained or allowed me to feel bad about it. He says, 'I just want to help.' Chris has made so much of this possible, and the parts he hasn’t made possible, he’s made easier, lighter, or more fun. He is my biggest supporter and my biggest fan, and I could not be more grateful for the love, kindness, devotion, and respect he shows me every single day. He is the best friend and best partner I could have ever asked for and my favorite thing is just laughing through life with him. He is everything.
"I also want to shout out my best friend, Callie, who has helped me and supported me in so many ways. From reviewing my papers and helping me process to reading some of the books I was assigned just so we could discuss them, to cheering me on and celebrating my every accomplishment, she has been such a pillar of support and I am just the luckiest to have her.
"Last but not least, my mom. Her unwavering love and support have meant so much to me."