Sweat trickled down Wendy Birdsall’s face as she stumbled into the classroom, cardboard box in one hand and a heavy hanger in another.
“I am so nervous,” she said, wiping her face. Her graduation gown took up an entire chair next to her. Her backpack was so full she could barely zip it.
Birdsall won’t finish her bachelor’s degree in applied physiology and sport management until the end of summer. But she recently found out she’d get to participate in graduation Friday.
That was the same day as her four-hour anthropology class, but fortunately the professor let the students out early.
Birdsall rushed to Southern Methodist University’s Catholic Campus Ministry to change out of her leggings and T-shirt and into a blue dress she got on sale at Sam’s Club.
The average age of SMU’s undergrads is 20.
Birdsall is 43.
SMU students’ median family income is close to $200,000, The New York Times says.
Birdsall overcame homelessness, sexual assault and drug addiction before enrolling at SMU in 2015. She gotscholarships, delivered sandwiches for more than 25 hours a week and took out “lots and lots” of student loans.
But Friday was her equalizer — a chance to blend in with her gowned classmates.
“I’ve always been either positively or negatively outside the box, but being part of just everybody else inside the box, the inclusion in that situation was nice,” she said.
Drugs, arrests and a turnaround
Birdsall’s parents divorced when she was 14. Within two years, she was homeless after her mother kicked her out.
Birdsall stayed in friends’ living rooms for a while, but eventually she dropped out of school and took a job at a nightclub in Arlington.
She stayed high for stretches and racked up felony arrests for assault, drug possession and car theft, to name a few. Her loved ones worried the police would call one day to tell them she’d overdosed in a motel room.
One night in 2006, Birdsall was arguing with her boyfriend when a stranger drove up and offered her a ride, she said. He drove her to a wooded area and sexually assaulted her before she managed to escape. Police arrested a convicted rapist in connection with the attack last year.
The News usually doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault, but Birdsall said she wanted to encourage other survivors to come forward.
“I was a victim, but I’m not a victim anymore,” she said.
In 2007, she checked herself into the Nexus Recovery Center, a substance rehabilitation facility for girls and women.
“I realized that living the life I was living, I was never going to have anything,” she said in a 2015 interview with The News. “I was going to end up dead in the street someday or locked up in prison on a life sentence.”
Her path to recovery wasn’t smooth. It included a drug relapse and a 2009 shoplifting arrest. The self-proclaimed atheist walked out of jail a Christian.
She won her El Centro College professors over with her development and enthusiasm.
When The News profiled Birdsall in 2015, she was working two jobs, pledging at a sorority and attending school full-time at SMU. She was 41 but she felt as though she were in her 20s, living the life she could’ve had much sooner if she hadn’t turned to drugs.
Many of her classmates didn’t know about her background. But after The News‘ article was published, people often stopped her on campus to tell her how much she had inspired them.
“To be the person where I came from and how far I’ve come, sometimes I feel like somebody’s going to pinch me
and say, ‘Girl, wake up, you’re dreaming,'” she said.
She says she has learned a lot from the highs and lows of the past three years.
She has figured out that to manage her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, she needs to sit at the front of the classroom so she won’t be as distracted by classmates clicking away on their computers or checking their phones.
There was a point last semester when Birdsall wasn’t sure she’d get to graduate. She was on the verge of failing a class, which would have meant delaying graduation — and she couldn’t afford another semester at SMU.
During spring break she called her boss at the sandwich shop to tell him she needed a few months off, and she dropped one class to salvage her grades in others.
She said she probably would’ve flunked out without encouragement and guidance from her professors and fellow students.
“Maybe it’s just the SMU bubble, I don’t know, but the community here has really helped me nurture myself and be OK with who I am,” Birdsall said.
Getting dressed Friday in the Catholic Center, Birdsall had many of the typical questions of a soon-to-be graduate: What side does the tassel hang on? How many pins will hold the cap in place? Heels or flats?
But there was another challenge.
Her aunt, her daughter, two friends from her street days, a couple who once taught her social skills and an ex-boyfriend’s parents whom she calls Mom and Dad were all coming to graduation. Many of them hadn’t met in person.
How would Birdsall get everyone in one place for introductions?
“I’m nervous. I shouldn’t be nervous, right?” she said as she walked to McFarlin Auditorium in baby pink and white sneakers she’d change out of later.
But at McFarlin, she was Wendy again. Energetic, youthful Wendy who hugged classmates and professors and joked that makeup and heels weren’t really her thing.
The graduation announcer happened to be one of her former professors. Most graduates handed him their pronounciation cards and continued walking to get their diplomas.
But when it was Birdsall’s turn, he gave her a rare hug before she walked across the stage. Other professors who know her felt the same pride.
“It was very important to me to see her walk across that stage,” said Lynn Romejko Jacobs, chairwoman of applied physiology and wellness and one of Birdsall’s mentors. “To see Wendy come across, it was like oh my gosh. ‘Come on girl, you can do it. Come on, come on.'”
The attention continued after the ceremony, but from the people who’ve been in Birdsall’s life the longest.
Melissa Knighten, who brought her baby boy to the graduation, said Birdsall helped her out of her drug addiction and encouraged her to enroll in college.
“I’m just excited that she had the courage to overcome the past,” Knighten said, tearing up. “She didn’t let that hold her back and she decided that she wanted to do something with her life.”
By Friday evening, the most stressful part of Birdsall’s day was over. Her aunt and longtime friends were sitting on a couch on campus, exchanging stories about her.
Birdsall slipped off her heels and let out a deep sigh as her feet touched the cold tiles.
She didn’t feel nervous anymore. All she wanted was a glass of wine and some time alone to catch up on her anthropology homework.
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