MONACA, Pa. — Maura Francis dialed her sister’s number. As soon as she heard the ringing stop, she blurted out the news.
Her sister screamed.
“Maura got in!”
This time of year, thousands of students across the country are making this phone call, revealing news of acceptance to their top-choice university to family and friends. But for the Penn State Beaver senior psychology major, the call didn’t just announce her acceptance to St. John’s University’s prestigious graduate program, it announced her arrival.
She’s going to be the first in her family to graduate from college. She’s going to be the first to go on to graduate school. She’s going to use the struggles of her childhood as a launching pad for her future.
“You can’t let other people dictate where you want to go,” she said.
‘I was so oblivious’
As far as elementary-aged Maura Francis knew, her family was a typical, middle class one: two parents, two jobs, two kids, one house.
She was too young to recognize what her sister Nicole — older by 12 years — already knew to be true. Their parents were addicts.
When Francis was 13, Nicole decided it would be best for her little sister to move out. What began as a monthslong visit to Nicole’s house turned into seven years. Francis didn’t really understand it at the time — why did she have to leave her house? — but she didn’t fight it.
“I’m kind of thankful I was so oblivious,” she said.
Because that innocence allowed her to move through the world as just another teenager, taking advanced placement classes, cheerleading, happily accepting admission to Penn State Beaver, serving as a resident assistant and campus leader.
But innocence doesn’t last forever, and eventually Francis had to confront her mother’s continued drug use and her father’s attempts at rehabilitation and reunion. She decided to approach reality with a plan: If she had experienced a life tainted by the effects of addiction, then surely other kids had, too. And who better to help them through it than someone who had already endured it?
She approached her teacher and adviser, Beaver Senior Instructor in Psychology Kevin Bennett, and made a declaration. She wanted to work with at-risk kids. “Kids who are going through what I went through and don’t have someone like my sister,” Francis said. She imagined starting an intervention program and nonprofit organization someday.
Step one of that plan: go to grad school.
‘You gotta do it’
There are students who look at graduate school as a kind of suspended reality; a way to delay entry to the working world. The truth is, it’s a lot of work just to get into graduate school.
Francis learned that quickly.
She had to take, and pay for, the Graduate Record Exam. She had to find money for application fees. She had to ask mentors for letters of recommendation. She had to wade through her research papers and decide which one was most likely to make an impression on graduate school admissions officers.
In the midst of the madness, administrators at Penn State Beaver asked Francis to speak at the University’s Board of Trustees meeting when the trustees visited campus during the summer of 2015. Francis was a bit hesitant. She knows that each time she tells her story, she takes a risk. And the Board of Trustees represented an extra-large risk.
“Not everyone is going to receive it well,” she said. “Some will take it as inspiration, others as attention-seeking.”
But she agreed. And after she’d finished talking, one of the trustees raised her hand.
“What are your future plans?” she asked.
“I’d at least like to get my master’s,” Francis answered.
“I’d like to speak with you afterward,” the trustee said.
That trustee was Alice Pope, a Penn State triple alumna and an associate professor of psychology at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. She had a suggestion for Francis: Don’t just get your master’s. Get your doctorate, and get it at St. John’s.
“You gotta do it,” Bennett told Francis. “If you get into St. John’s, it will make all of this worth it.”
He wasn’t surprised when Francis arrived at his office in March, wearing a grin and announcing her acceptance. Psychology programs like the one at St. John’s are looking for particular types of candidates, Bennett said. They don’t just want to see numbers on a sheet of paper.
“They’re looking for people with different perspectives and unique experiences,” Bennett said. “They want people who are passionate. I think Maura is going to fit right in.”
New York, New York
When Francis begins classes at St. John’s in the fall, she will be one of the youngest students in her cohort. She will also be navigating New York’s public transportation system. At this point, she’s a bit more concerned about the subway.
“I have never done public transportation by myself,” she said.
Being a little fish in the big graduate school pond is also intimidating, but she believes Penn State Beaver has prepared her well. Her role as a resident adviser taught her the power of listening and the futility of trying to make everyone happy. Working with Bennett on research assessment exposed her to the rigors of academic inquiry.
And successfully navigating one of the largest university systems in the nation allowed her to grow in a way she didn’t think possible.
“I feel like I was at Penn State for a reason,” she said. “I feel like I am finally mature enough to move out of state.”