CEO Staff Spotlight
GEAR UP Team
A College Odyssey
No two college stories are the same and they all unfold in their own ways. Given her love of stories growing up, it’s fitting that Megan Ahlquist’s college journey turned into quite the odyssey.
Megan’s Ithaca (or home) was in Port Huron, Michigan. Her father was an automotive engineer and going to college was part of the narrative for most members of her family. Therefore, it was never a question of if she went to college but when.
A Spark of Influence
During her senior year at Port Huron Northern High School, Megan was inspired by a personable, passionate AP literature teacher who challenged her. Mrs. Devendorf assigned the class more complex readings and saw potential in Megan. Naturally, this experience was meaningful and moved Megan so much that she imagined a future where she became a teacher and provided the same supportive, challenging environment that would help more students see and strive for their potential. Sparked by the influence of this teacher and fueled by a fascination with stories, her own was bound to begin.
With a sense of adventure and eagerness to explore beyond her home state, Megan knew she wanted to go to college outside of Michigan. This led her on the path to Carroll University, a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Like other students who transfer each year, Megan realized in her first semester that she didn’t quite feel at home. While she had expected college would be challenging, she had not envisioned this particular hardship and foundered.
Since this chapter aligned with the boom of social media and its magical—but not quite realistic–narrations of peoples’ lives, Megan was further troubled by perceived distances between her story and the curated stories of people she followed on social media. Everybody seemed to be right where they were supposed to be, surrounded by friends who added depth and joy to their lives and pursuing the futures they had planned. When seeing her friends’ active feeds, she felt her college experience was less fulfilling and more lonely. She wanted to transfer after her first semester but her parents encouraged her to finish a full year before leaving. This proved to be quite the trial but it prompted a larger theme in her college experience, discovering who she was as a person independent of social groups or activities. It also led to a renewed sense of home and the wish to return to it.
Hope and a New Chapter
After her first year, Megan took a new route back to Michigan where she looked at a few universities of interest. Her first college visit was disheartening–the campus felt empty and like her previous university. Then she visited Hope College, which instantly felt like home. It was “bright” and “warm” and she enrolled. This would prove to be a great chapter for her.
Just as no tale is complete without setbacks or turbulence, it inevitably has those sweet moments of rebound that fortify the individual and increase her knowledge of her character. Despite having been initially bound and determined to pursue her education elsewhere, Megan’s knowledge of herself and her needs as a student changed. She went on to enjoy her college experience both inside and outside the classroom. As she made progress toward her degree and future as a teacher, she also evolved in ways she hadn’t anticipated. These new directions were useful to her later, as a teacher, especially for interpersonal development; while Megan had always been a compassionate, empathetic person with an appreciation for the world beyond her, she had not realized how much more room there was for her worldview to expand. She began to perceive more shades of gray, recognizing a deeper complexity in the world’s events than she had ever seen when initially envisioning her own life. This complexity would lead to an awareness and acceptance of life’s imperfect moments, like her first year of college when she weighed her own happiness by comparing it to her perceptions of others’ happiness.
Although a college transfer had been unplanned, the developmental outcomes Megan reached are one of the most central aspects of the college experience. Higher education professionals spend a great deal of time planning programs, processes, and supportive resources to help students reach these outcomes–transferring is just one type of defining event a student might encounter. Between graduating high school and college, students often progress along a spectrum of black-and-white, linear thinking to a more holistic and realistic appreciation of varied perspectives. In doing so, students move from looking to the world for direction and instead become able to appreciate external sources of opinion while having the confidence to make final decisions and author their own stories. By reaching this point of self-authorship, Megan was then more poised to mentor students who would, through one circumstance or another, likely undergo these same trying processes during their college experiences. When asked what she might tell a student (or a younger version of herself) going through a similar situation, Megan realized her own story revealed a truth to her as a teacher and as a student continuously learning as her own life unfolds: “it’s okay if things aren’t okay.”
The Next Adventure
When she graduated from Hope College and departed Michigan once again, she set out on a new part of her journey a bit more prepared and ready for the unexpected. This time she traveled to Colorado with the goal of teaching for at least five years. The choice to set out for a new part of the country demonstrates her growth since the first time she left Michigan. The change was further exemplified when she found Colorado was not the place for her and responded with the wisdom that comes with a few more years of experience. Instead of going home, she tried a new environment, one in Indiana where she lived for three years. Satisfied with this experience, she was ready to move on to another chapter and took up a position in Michigan where she taught for one more year. As she taught, she sought to instill the same confidence in her students that she received from her teacher and family, using language that reinforced the message that they had the ability to go to college. She hoped to help students see it as not “if” they had the opportunity to go to college but “when.”
A Confident Step Towards a New Opportunity
Upon re-evaluating after this fifth year of teaching, she made another confident step in a new direction in 2019. She met with Tom Drake, a representative at the University of Michigan’s School of Education to explore her academic interests, later deciding to pursue a Master’s Degree in Program Evaluation and Improvement Research (PEIR) full-time. After teaching for five years, she was excited to return to the role of student and relished the opportunity. Megan earned her degree and gained valuable experience working in U-M’s Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research (CEDER), emerging with a sense of what she hoped to see in her next chapter.
Following her own sense of purpose and self-awareness, she found herself in a position at the Center for Educational Outreach. As a Data Strategy and Business Program Manager, Megan came to realize a sense of fulfillment from having completed a long journey that spanned four states, over 1,300 miles, five years of teaching, two colleges, graduate school, and a lot of personal growth. Beginning with an 18-year-old who had just left her home state and felt a bit lost, the adventure ended when a slightly older, more experienced and confident version of that 18-year-old found herself at home as a professional in a career supporting educational access for K-12 students. Although a more linear, simple path might have been easier to tell, it would have lacked the confidence that comes from having weathered the unexpected, learned from the challenging moments, and built her own destination at the end of it. After all, what is any odyssey without a few detours?
and Looking Forward
Unplanned chapters make stronger leaders out of the best of us and Megan will prove to be more impactful because of her own, helping young students find the courage and strength to set out on their educational adventures. Inspired by their experiences, some of them will go on to serve in positions where they open new doors for other K-12 students, just as Megan did for them and her AP Literature teacher did for her.