UM-Flint grad beats the odds – and opinions – to graduate with honors

Share or print this article
Elizabeth Ashley posing for a photo in the UM-Flint library
Elizabeth Ashley, a recent UM-Flint elementary education graduate, will use her UM-Flint degree to help students overcome the struggles she experienced before college.

"I often say that you're going to either walk these kids into success, or you're going to walk them into prison — they don't get to either place on their own," said Elizabeth Ashley, a recent University of Michigan-Flint graduate with a bachelor's degree in elementary education and Maize & Blue Scholar.

And Ashley should know. Beginning in elementary school, she struggled with competing mental health diagnoses, including Oppositional Defiant Disorder and, eventually, PTSD as a result of a series of traumatic events she experienced in school. She ultimately had to switch to a different school and was placed in a special education classroom, and by the time she was in high school, she was on the verge of dropping out.

"It was a common joke around my middle and high schools – from my peers as well as the teachers and staff – that the only institution I was headed for was prison," Ashley said. "I didn't feel that anyone at school cared about me or believed that I could succeed in anything, so I didn't believe in myself, either."

After a two-week suspension for behavioral issues, Ashley walked into class and found she was sitting for the SATs. She listed UM-Flint as one of the universities she was interested in on her exam.

"I honestly didn't remember doing it, but a few months later, I received a letter from UM-Flint stating that I had been accepted into their Promise Scholars program," said Ashley. "I was shocked! And not just me, everyone I knew was! In fact, the guidance counselor even contacted UM-Flint to confirm that they had actually meant to accept me, which really hurt. The counselor wouldn't even give me financial aid or scholarship information because they didn't think I would actually go. But UM-Flint did accept me, and it felt like, for the first time, someone finally believed in me."

Ashley had to raise her GPA to be eligible for the Promise Scholar program. She spent the rest of her time in high school working hard to do so and then participated in an eight-week, on-campus experience at UM-Flint, which didn't start well.

"My low self-esteem really kept me from engaging. I just didn't feel like I was as good as my peers or deserved to be there," Ashley said. "It was a really low period, and I considered dropping out, but Dr. Janice Jones, the head of the program at the time, stepped in and convinced me to stay. And it completely changed my life."

Once Ashley committed to UM-Flint, she gave it her all. Guided by her own experiences, she pursued a major in elementary education to work with and support students who might exhibit similar behavioral and mental health issues. She also made a commitment to herself to be an outsider no more: She served on the campus activities board from fall 2019 through fall 2021, joined the Phi Sigma Sigma sorority in winter 2022, and is an active member of the Future Teachers Organization. 

"People have this misconception about Greek life; it has such a bad reputation, but becoming a Phi Sigma Sigma helped me build a sisterhood where I began to feel a real sense of belonging," said Ashley. "The chapter was quite small, so I had the opportunity to be the philanthropy chairperson. Within a month, we held one of our biggest scholarship fundraising events – Erin's Dinner. We raised $3,500 toward the scholarship fund, leading to my chapter presidency, beginning in 2023."

Six young, smiling women sit on a grassy hillside. The woman at the center is wearing a graduation gown and holding her cap, decorated in pink.
Ashley, center, with her fellow Phi Sigma Sigma sisters on her graduation day

Ashley's focus on building inclusive communities was first recognized when she was named a UM-Flint Inclusive Leader in 2023. She received the award during the April 2023 Celebrating Wolverine Excellence ceremony.

"I never saw myself as a leader before; I just didn't have a lot of self-confidence or see myself in a positive light," Ashley said. "But I really wanted to belong at UM-Flint, which meant making sure others felt they also belonged. I didn't have that when I was growing up; diversity wasn't allowed – you were all the same, or you were, like me, an outcast. So, it's essential to me that others feel welcome and that UM-Flint is a welcoming community. That everyone feels they belong here."

Ashley was awarded more than 20 merit-based scholarships and awards throughout her academic career at UM-Flint. She rounded out her academic transformation by receiving the Maize & Blue Graduate Scholarship and being named one of 13 Winter 2024 Maize & Blue Distinguished Scholars.

"Look, I graduated in the bottom 10% of my class in high school, and no one had much hope for me to succeed," said Ashley. "To receive the Maize & Blue honor was so inspiring – for me and those in my life who have supported me. And I think it's a testament to what we can achieve when we commit to believing in ourselves. 

"I have thrown myself into serving the campus community – helping first-year students, being on hand for Move-in Day, and participating in Wolverine Welcome. I always sought out anyone who looked like they didn't feel like they belonged, and I welcomed them with open arms. It means so much to me that the Maize & Blue honored my passion for inclusivity."

Bianca Torbert, manager of the Morris Hood Jr Educator Development Program, is one of UM-Flint's administrative staff who is impressed by Ashley's academic career.

"Elizabeth is an exceptional student who has excelled academically and been a valuable asset to the entire student community," Torbert said. "Her leadership skills and willingness to help others have not gone unnoticed, and she has been on the UM-Flint Dean's List throughout her time here. Her success is a testament to what hard work, passion and unwavering determination can achieve. I do not doubt that Elizabeth will continue to achieve greatness in her future endeavors."

As Ashley looks to the future, she plans to pursue a Master of Social Work degree while continuing her work as an elementary school teacher. Ultimately, she'd like to get a PhD and possibly work in education policy at the state level.

"I'm interested in child psychology, or maybe educational psychology, some sort of path where I can use my personal experiences to help kids," Ashley said. "It's funny because I loathed school for so long, and now I can't imagine not continuing my education. UM-Flint is my heart, and my experience here has been truly transformative. I went from being told I couldn't even see scholarship applications to scoring 23 merit-based scholarships throughout my undergrad career! 

"I hope anyone reading this – anyone who doesn't believe in themselves or feels like the world is stacked against them – I want them to know that if I can do it, they can, too. They are worthy, and they will persevere."

Kat Oak is the communications specialist for the College of Arts, Sciences, and Education. She can be reached via email at [email protected].