Growing up in a rural and impoverished Ohio town fueled Sheyanne S. Smith’s decision to pursue education but not just for herself – as a tool of opportunity for underprivileged students and help break generational cycles. “Most days, I was too worried about if the lights would be on or where the next meal would come from to focus on school,” Smith said. “I was one of three students in my graduating class who went out of state for college.”
But desire was not enough. Navigating college admissions and financial aid as a first-gen student would prove difficult. And making it to graduation? Even tougher.
She landed at Belmont, which helped by investing in her to stay in school when times got tough. “The reason I was able to stay at Belmont and graduate was because of the support I received from the University,” Smith said. “I remember a specific example–I had filled out the paperwork to withdraw due to the inability to pay for tuition and living expenses. In a last-ditch effort, I went to one of the offices and explained my situation. Within a week, Belmont had crafted a solution to work with me and allow me to continue my education. Not only staying in school but the willingness to invest in me had a profound impact.”
Smith graduated in 2018 with a degree in English and a minor in Education. She continued in the College of Education and graduated in 2019 with a Master’s of Arts in Teaching and is now the High Ability Learning Specialist for the Office of Teaching, Learning, & Assessment for the Nebraska Department of Education. “In a funny way, my lack of positive experiences in school drew me to education,” she said. “I saw so much unmet potential and systemic disservice to students, and I wanted to change it. So much of student development is chance, and I wanted to be the person I needed when I was in school.”
She had quite a road to travel to get there. Belmont was pivotal in her journey. “Being a student at Belmont University undoubtedly changed my life in a way that is hard to put into words,” she said. “When I chose to go to college at Belmont, I had to go it alone. Moving to a big city alone as a first-generation college student was terrifying, but I immediately felt at home at Belmont. I found my passion, my people and myself. I finally felt like I belonged and that I was heard.”
“The experiences I had at Belmont allowed me to come into my own and gain confidence to pursue my dreams,” she said. “The professors, faculty, staff and everyone on campus truly believe in the mission and support students not only academically but emotionally and spiritually as well. It was so much more than just the classes that contributed to my success. I felt like people believed in me, and that made all of the difference. The commitment to students is truly extraordinary.”
While life after graduation has had its challenges, Smith said the College of Education prepared her academically and equipped her with the skills necessary to thrive in the professional world of education. “Learning to handle my professional and personal life has been simultaneously one of the easiest and most challenging things I have done,” Smith said. “I took a state-level administrator position in a state I had never been to and started remotely in the midst of a pandemic–enough said, right? In all seriousness, I am lucky to have an army of supporters in my corner.”
Smith attributes her successes to those who have “walked alongside me in this incredible journey.” And there are many, beginning with her “chosen parents, my friends who became family, and my husband.” Impactful people like Dr. Amy Hodges-Hamilton (English) gave Sheyanne the courage to embrace all parts of herself, while professors in the College of Education provided guidance and support while allowing exploration outside of course content. “[Hodges-Hamilton] emphasized the importance of telling stories and inspired me to tell mine. She helped me find my voice and inspire others with my story. She believed in me as a writer and me as a person. Without her guidance, I would have never had the courage to embrace all things that make up me—even the parts I didn’t want.”
While she is grateful for all of the professors she had, the professors in the College of Education have made and continue to make a difference for Smith. “Although Belmont does not have a program to study gifted education, my professors worked hard to help me integrate gifted into course content, designed independent studies, and allowed me to follow my passion even if it was out of their scope of the class.”
She’s also grateful to Drs. Rachel Flynn-Hopper, Sally Barton-Arwood, Joy Kimmons and Mona Ivey-Soto for “allowing me to explore outside opportunities and for their flexibility which allowed me to enter the field prepared,” Smith said. “Outside of class, their kind words, encouragement and fierce devotion to student success were key to my development as an educator and a leader. Even after graduating, the Belmont College of Education faculty and staff are always there to support their alumni in any way they can.”
Smith also has a passion for women’s sports. “I played softball at Belmont and have played female sports my whole life, so I am a huge advocate for girls in sports and breaking gender barriers. As one of my hobbies, I play semi-pro women’s tackle football. Football has been a historically male sport, with females occasionally playing in lingerie leagues. We play ‘real’ football—pads, tackling, uniforms, rules, the whole thing!”
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