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Non-traditional grad makes the most of McDaniel College

McDaniel undergraduate Brittany Sears had a different path to graduation from many of those in the class of 2019, but she graduated Saturday, May 25 summa cum laude with departmental honors in psychology.

Sears, 33, knew from the get-go that she wanted to major in psychology. Besides being fascinated by the science, she knew she wanted to help people.

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She is a first-generation college student, which is very important to her, but even more meaningful was graduating after going to school while taking care of her daughter, who just turned 5.

“She’s the reason I’m here,” Sears said.

She described some years of her earlier life as “rocky.” She moved to Westminster not long after she learned that she would be having her daughter. Around town, she saw signs for McDaniel College.

“I was like, ‘I need to do something.’ So I went and I applied here,” she said. “I was completely unaware of the cost. I was unaware of anything.”

Ever since she got accepted, “it has been life-changing,” she said.

McDaniel College senior Brittany Sears, who is graduating May 25 with her bachelors in psychology cares for pigeons in the school's psychology lab Tuesday May 21, 2019. Sears worked with the pigeons examining the effects of condition reinforcement.
McDaniel College senior Brittany Sears, who is graduating May 25 with her bachelors in psychology cares for pigeons in the school's psychology lab Tuesday May 21, 2019. Sears worked with the pigeons examining the effects of condition reinforcement. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Her daughter was there to see her walk across the stage Saturday, alongside Sears’ mother and her friends.

Another big fan of Sears is professor Margaret McDevitt who taught several of Sears’ classes and hired her to work as a lab technician on behavioral studies with pigeons.

“What really stood out to me about Brittany is that she has a work ethic like none I’ve ever seen. She just does what it takes and is committed to it,” McDevitt said.

Mornings were hectic for Sears and her daughter as they both got ready for their days. But she was never late to class.

“It wasn't easy. It's a lot of, ‘Come on. Let's go, I gotta get out the door….’” she said.

One day, Sears’ daughter was off of school and she couldn’t find childcare. She thought she would have to miss class, but when she contacted her professor, she asked her to bring her daughter to class rather than miss a day.

“She just sat on my lap the whole time,” Sears said.

Part time while earning her degree, Sears worked at The Hill Y in Westminster. They were like another family to her, she said, and helped her with flexibility in scheduling and having child care.

“I didn't do this alone. My mom, my brother, the Y people helped me do this,” she said.

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Starting out her degree more than 10 years older than most of her peers in class could be an emotional challenge.

“In the beginning, I felt very very out of place,” she said. But by the second semester things started to improve.

“I got treated by the faculty and everyone no different than any other student here,” she said. “I did research, I was a writing fellow, I worked in the cognitive psychology lab as well as as a research assistant. I did the same things as the other students are able to do.”

The first class she taught Sears, McDevitt said she sensed how capable and smart she was. But she sensed that her student needed some encouragement to realize it about herself.

When professors encouraged her to branch out, like presenting her research at a conference, “She was so brave about going past her comfort zone and achieving the next step,” McDevitt said.

As a writing fellow, other students could reach out to her for one-on-one help with papers. In this arena, being a little older than her fellow undergrads, as well as having a reputation for earning high grades came in helpful.

This summer, she will stay in Westminster and continue working on research on prospective memory and learning programming with professor Jack Arnal.

Her next step is to continue her education at McDaniel to earn a master’s degree in counseling.

“I'm leaning towards that direction, but there's a part of me that wants to eventually do research and teach, hopefully, a place just like this.”

She said her professors inspire her.

“How they could change people's lives made me want to go into teaching,” she said. “They are, I think, the epitome of what a psychology professor should be. I look up to them, and I want to be them.”

While McDevitt said Sears’ undergraduate professors will miss her, there’s joy in seeing what’s next. She expects that they’ll stay in touch.

“I am on her side,” McDevitt said. “I’ll always be in her corner.”

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