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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘This is the right time for you’: Mother’s Day college graduates seize their moment

Stephanie Crockett, 29, is graduating from Gonzaga Law. She stopped by the Louis L. and Katheryn Barbieri Courtroom in the Gonzaga Law School with her daughter, Alora, on Friday.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

For many women, the thought of becoming a mother brings the worry of losing sight of their own aspirations and ambitions.

It’s often about retreating from or delaying a career. Three women graduating from college this spring shared their experiences, challenges and triumphs as each took a different approach to finishing their education.

Family first

When Stephanie Crockett learned that she might struggle to conceive, the choice was obvious: she wanted to have children before going to graduate school.

Crockett, 29, grew up in Sammamish, deciding to attend college on a cello scholarship. She studied exercise physiology on a pre-med track and met her husband during her senior year of college. The two married before graduation.

“I always knew I wanted to continue my education eventually,” she said.

She became pregnant not long after graduation, but baby Ella was born prematurely and didn’t survive.

Crockett and her husband, Jared, took some time to heal. She became certified in yoga, and Jared continued his mechanical engineering degree.

During her pregnancy with Alora, Crockett again had a complex pregnancy that left her on bedrest for months.

“I felt like I wanted to be home with my daughter for the first year and a half to two years of her life,” she said. “Just with how hard I worked to get her here.”

Then when Alora was three months old, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

“I was starting to get a little stir-crazy. I always have to be doing something,” Crockett said. “I have a hard time being at home all day.”

The pandemic made her rethink career goals, with medical school seeming like it would just take too long. She started studying for the LSAT and decided on law school at Gonzaga. A determining factor was the availability of daycare.

The couple moved to Spokane, and Crockett began classes. At first, she was nervous be back in school, and that she wouldn’t fit in with her classmates. Most of the people in her classes who had young children were men, she noted.

“Am I going to be able to find people to socialize?” Crockett asked herself. She also needed to plan childcare for study sessions.

It was difficult to juggle studying and Alora being in daycare , she said. Alora got COVID twice and had to have her tonsils out over Crockett’s winter break.

Despite all of that, Crockett said she has felt like a parenting success by taking time to fuel her passions.

“I personally feel like I am a better mom if I do what I need to do, and then when I’m with her it’s 100% focused on her,” Crockett said.

Being a parent while in law school, Crockett said, has given her a new motivation: to be a role model for her daughter. Having her own passions, Crockett hopes, will help her daughter see her as a whole person with goals and dreams outside of being a parent.

As graduation approached, Crockett looked forward to her job at a local law firm where she hopes to do defense work on medical malpractice cases, marrying her love of the medical field with her legal expertise.

On graduation day, Crockett was excited to show off her daughter to her classmates. With both sets of her grandparents coming into town, Crockett joked Alora “kind of thinks it’s about her a little bit.”

And if you ask Crockett, Alora is right.

Insecurity to passion

Heather Fitzgerald on her graduation day from WSU Vancouver  (Courtesy of Heather Fitzgerald)
Heather Fitzgerald on her graduation day from WSU Vancouver (Courtesy of Heather Fitzgerald)

Heather Fitzgerald transferred to Washington State University’s Vancouver campus a few years ago and decided that she would just put her head down and get her work done. She didn’t want to take away from the typical young college student’s experience by joining clubs or being in leadership.

“Importantly, I didn’t want to rob a younger person of that role,” said Fitzgerald, 42. “This is their time, is how I felt when I started.”

But that’s just not who Fitzgerald is. Before going back to school, she was active in her children’s school and hobbies, even serving as PTO president.

Once she began her accounting classes and joined the honor society, Beta Alpha Si, Fitzgerald quickly realized there were other students who took unconventional paths to college degrees.

“There were lots of people just like me. It was a whole diverse group of students,” Fitzgerald said. “I suddenly realized that maybe I do belong here and have a place.”

Fitzgerald grew up in Vancouver. After high school, she went to college right away, hoping to become a musician after getting into an exclusive jazz group at Edmonds Community College.

“I started to try to do education work and be in this music ensemble, and it was just too much for me,” she said. “I just wasn’t ready for that responsibility.”

Her parents didn’t go to college, making the experience even more confusing and difficult, she said.

Fitzgerald moved home and not long after met her husband, Kevin Fitzgerald. She was 23, and he was a few years older with two children, Autumn and Takoda.

She took a few classes at Clark Community College but “was just not sure of my path.”

Then she got pregnant with twins and gave birth to Alyssa and Isabella in 2009, making the decision to focus on parenting over a career an easy one, Fitzgerald said.

“It’s difficult for women to decide family planning,” she said. “When we found out we were having twins, it was kind of like a no-brainer to put it on hold.”

Being a stay-at-home mom was a joy, she said, but also came with difficulties. Her husband worked hard to support the family on one income, and the couple had to pinch pennies to make it work.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Fitzgerald began to re-evaluate things. Her children were older, the cost of living was rising, and Fitzgerald felt ready for a change.

“It was just all the stars aligned saying, ‘Heather, this is the time to do this,’” she said. “This is the right time for you.”

She re-enrolled at Clark Community College and finished her pre-requisites.

“I think that there was a lot that I did differently this time,” she said of going back to school.

When she transferred to WSU, accounting seemed like the obvious fit, with Fitzgerald’s prior experience as a clerk in an accounting department and her older sister with an accounting degree to rely on for support.

What she didn’t expect was being drawn to becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) to help small businesses in her community with their taxes. She found friends in her program, entering into a bit of a mentorship role for some of the younger students. She even became president of Beta Alpha Si.

“I went from feeling like I needed to fit in and be part of this culture to ‘No, I am older and I have lived a lot of life and I have a lot of experience to share,’” she said. “I became like sort of a mentor to a lot of younger accounting students that were coming through.”

Fitzgerald affected those around her, and her peers nominated her to carry the Carson College of Business banner at graduation last weekend as she celebrated completing her dual majors in accounting and finance.

“Words can’t even describe how proud I felt to carry the banner,” she said. “I never thought that I would be this involved in my university experience.”

Continuing to grow with her kids

Angie Densley, 50, studies for her classes at Gonzaga Law School with her son, Charlie, 8, dog, Kiwi, and cat, Luna.  (Courtesy of Angie Densley )
Angie Densley, 50, studies for her classes at Gonzaga Law School with her son, Charlie, 8, dog, Kiwi, and cat, Luna. (Courtesy of Angie Densley )

As she raised her 11 children, Angie Densley, 50, continued to advance her career one degree at a time.

Densley grew up in California but spent her final year of high school as an exchange student in Sweden. She expected to go to college when she returned but met and married her first husband when she was 19.

She took online classes for a while and became a licensed practical nurse. She had the first of her six boys when she was 20.

She wanted to move up in her career, so she became a registered nurse in 2009. She became a nursing director not long after, a step forward as she went through a divorce.

Like many moms, Densley said she dealt with guilt over not being solely focused on her children.

“That’s what society tells you – it’s one or the other,” Densley said.

It took some time, but Densley said she figured out that what was most important to her children was being totally present in the important moments like sports games or choir concerts.

Eventually she got married again, adding four step-children to the mix. Densley was recruited to a similar supervisory position in Colorado, but the new employer wanted her to get her bachelor’s degree, which she did.

After six years in that job, the family moved back to Utah, this time with the Densleys’ surprise baby, Charlie, in tow.

Once in Utah, both Densley and her husband, Bruce Densley, decided to pursue MBAs. At the time, Densley was working as a nursing home consultant. She loved the legal courses in her MBA program and wanted to keep moving up in her career, so she began thinking about applying to law school.

“I found it really interesting and saw a way that I could kind of advance my career but would allow me to have more flexibility with my family,” she said.

When she was admitted to Gonzaga School of Law, it felt like the perfect fit.

The continued pursuit of education is something Densley hopes to model for her 11 children.

“I felt that it was important to show the children that often we’re told that you have a short window of opportunity to go to school, and if you miss it, you miss it,” she said. “I hoped that they could see that you could change your mind, you could try different things and it’s not necessarily too late to go back.”

Being back in school has also made it easier to relate to her college-aged children’s struggles.

“We’re not that far distant from our kids in that we can relate to what life is like now as opposed to being such a generational gap,” Densley said.

The next few months for Densley are filled with excitement, from graduation to returning to Utah where she will work as a clinical compliance officer at the University of Utah, combining her nursing and legal expertise.

The move will also keep the Densleys close to their four grandchildren so she can continue her goal of being there when it matters most.