Rhonda Fowler had already decided that if any of her children’s graduation ceremonies this spring conflicted with her own, she’d go to theirs.
Fowler, 46, of Fauquier County is among more than 1,200 students graduating from the University of Mary Washington this weekend. She’ll receive a diploma for a bachelor’s degree in English in a ceremony at 9 a.m. Saturday at Ball Circle.
She worried a little, because both a daughter and a son were also set to graduate from their degree programs this spring. But luckily, neither of the ceremonies conflict with hers.
“Thank goodness,” Fowler said. “I’m excited to walk!”
For Fowler, earning her degree as a wife and mother to a blended family of eight kids—ranging in age from 9 to 32—has meant sacrifices for the whole family.
It meant waking up at 1 a.m. to get her school work done so she could be present for her kids—those still living at home are 15, 10 and 9—and her husband in the evenings. It meant scuffling with her kids for her share of their rural home’s limited internet access.
It meant giving up half the family’s income. It meant taking double loads of classes—seven or eight a semester, instead of four or five—and consuming two pots of coffee a day.
But it was something she needed to do for herself.
“I was determined,” Fowler said. “I thought, I can do this—for a year.”
“It was invigorating,” she added.
Fowler made her first attempt at earning a bachelor’s degree more than two decades ago at California State University, Long Beach. She spent three years there as a declared theater major—but dropped out before graduating because she was married and pregnant with her oldest son.
“That’s what you did back then,” she said. “You started a family.”
She regretted dropping out almost immediately—and the regret just continued to grow.
She made a career as a school bus driver, first for Fairfax County and then for Fauquier County. But that wasn’t her passion.
Through the families she met driving a bus, Fowler became convinced that higher education was the way to a better life.
“I saw a lot of systemic poverty, especially in Fauquier,” she said. “I’d ask the kids where they were going to college and it just wasn’t even in their game plan.”
As Fowler’s older children—her own and those of her second husband, a carpenter she married 11 years ago—started entering college and then graduating, they encouraged her to go back.
“They’d say, ‘Mom, you really need to do this,’ “ Fowler recalled.
Then, her dad got sick.
“Before he died, he made me promise to go back to school,” she said.
In 2016, Fowler made the decision with her family to start taking classes at Lord Fairfax Community College. The next year, she prepared to transfer to a four-year school in fall 2017.
She decided not to continue with her theater degree, because the night and weekend schedule of an actor “wasn’t her priority anymore.” Instead, she had become passionate about literacy, and chose to work toward a master’s degree in education.
After earning her associate’s degree, she applied to both George Mason University and UMW. She chose the Fredericksburg school because she felt it had less of a “corporate feel” and more of a focus on literacy in its education program.
Fowler has one more year at UMW to earn her master’s degree. After that, she plans to look for a job in Prince William County, first teaching elementary school and then later, high school English.
At UMW, Fowler was always the oldest student in class, except for one semester. She said she sometimes felt awkward working on group projects with classmates who were the same age as her own kids.
“But for [the classmates], it wasn’t weird at all,” she said. “They weren’t standoffish. They just thought of me as a second mom.”
She said all of her professors were supportive. When schools in Fauquier were canceled for snow, they allowed her to bring her youngest kids to class with her.
Fowler said her favorite class was post-Colonial literature.
“I loved it because we got to read a variety of voices,” she said.
Being aware of how many different voices and experiences can be found in literature will help her promote literacy as a teacher, Fowler said.
“I can help [students] find what speaks to them, what represents them,” she said.
Though Fowler especially relished her English classes, the math and science classes were also more enjoyable than she expected.
“I found my brain was so much more ready for math and science than when I was younger,” she said.
Because her family is so large, Fowler said they will celebrate her success after the graduation ceremony by going home and having a big cookout.
She’s looking forward to starting a job as a teacher and plans to work for as long as she can.
“I’m not the type to sit around,” she said.
Fowler recommends that anyone who has ever thought about going back to school should do it. Her passion for education and second chances—especially for mothers—makes her tear up.
“If there’s anybody else out there who is a mom and is thinking of going back, they need to do it,” she said.