Patricia Marshall ’94 chose a very public place—Congress—to reveal the details of her difficult childhood in a small town in central Maine:
Living in an isolated trailer without running water.
Sleeping in a junked van to escape her parents’ fighting, with layers of sleeping bags to keep her warm on winter nights.
Navigating life with and without a father who was alternately effusive and abusive.
Riding her bike 15 miles to school to escape the bullies who tormented her on the bus.
“It often felt like it was coming from all directions,” she said.
Marshall went public about her past in May at a Senate hearing in Washington. She testified to support funding for Upward Bound and other federal programs that help disadvantaged students like she had been. Now an administrator at Worcester State University, she looked out at the hearing room full of legislative aides, reporters, and other “suits,” took a deep breath, and told her story.
“It wasn’t easy,” Marshall said later. “I got back and I said to people, ‘I feel like I was standing up there naked.’”
But, she said, it was worth it.
For the longtime professor of Spanish, education—including nurturing by Upward Bound and a federal program for children of migrant workers (she and her mother spent a summer raking blueberries)—was the ticket out of rural poverty and into the world of Colby and, later, a Ph.D. program at Brown University. Her remarkable story and career path offer insight into how best to support students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds—a mission that grows in importance as the percentage of these students grows at Colby.
Coming from a family and community where college was unlikely, and a college like Colby nearly inconceivable, Marshall never looked back. “When I got to Colby, I said, ‘This is mine. Nobody can take it away from me,’” she said.
Marshall was more ready for Colby than her background might have predicted. She was prepared well academically, she said, by her teachers at Central High School in Corinth and by the instructors at Upward Bound at the University of Maine, Orono. Her score on a national Spanish exam earned her a partial scholarship for six weeks in Spain after high school (she raised the rest herself). And while she had little experience with the social life at a place like Colby, she did have a gift from her mother, who had an eighth-grade education and spent most of her working life as a hand sewer in a shoe shop.
“My mother is very independent,” Marshall said, “and has always inspired that in me. There was nothing that was going to stop me from getting a degree from Colby.”
And there were things that the College did and provided that made her academic success more likely, she said.
Marshall spent junior year in Salamanca, Spain, in the Colby program there. When she was on campus, Marshall said, her work-study job in the libraries was perfect for an academically inclined student. Someone at the College made sure that she had a job on campus every summer and didn’t have to return home. “I have no idea how it happened, but it was the best thing ever,” Marshall said.
Not interested in the party scene, she lived in a quiet dorm and was “more nervous about my grades” than about fitting in socially.
She needn’t have worried so much.
Marshall was named a Charles Dana Scholar after one semester and was an A student. Jorge Olivares, the Allen Professor of Latin American Literature, recalls her as quiet in class, “but when she did talk, everyone listened.” Associate Professor of Spanish Betty Sasaki recounted driving Marshall to her off-campus apartment and Marshall saying she wasn’t lonely living alone. “She wasn’t running away from life at school, but she wasn’t afraid to be with herself. I think that part of her intellectual acuity was connected to her ability and her level of comfort of being alone with her own ideas.”
While neither professor knew just how alone Marshall had been growing up, they did quickly note her unusual self-reliance and independence. And, said Olivares, Marshall handled the challenges posed by her background “with dignity and humor.”
They helped Marshall, Phi Beta Kappa and a summa cum laude graduate with distinction in Spanish and English majors, with her application to an extremely competitive doctoral program in Spanish literature at Brown. “We were all thrilled when she got in,” Sasaki said.
For Marshall it was the next stage in her bid to become a Spanish professor like her Colby mentors. She taught and earned her Ph.D. at Brown and married her Colby sweetheart, Sean Holland ’93, now an attorney (they have daughters ages 14 and 9). She went on to other teaching positions at Clark, Wesleyan, Providence College, and at Worcester State, where she left a tenured faculty position to join the administration as associate vice president for academic affairs. One of her charges: improving the university’s retention of its mostly first-generation, working-class students, many of them Hispanic, Cambodian, Vietnamese, or Albanian.
“At a place like Colby it would be more like a professor contacting the dean because a student isn’t showing up. But here the number of students who drop off the radar is huge. Some stop coming. Some don’t bother to register for the next semester.”
According to Marshall, many of those students are working 30 hours a week and feel both the push to go to college and the pull to go back home, get a job. Many need academic counseling to find the right program. Marshall said she tries to connect the experience in the classroom with life outside, and she asks students, “Why are we here? What is the value of having this discussion?”
“I tell them that it’s a luxury to have the experience of sitting here for fifty minutes and talking about this,” she said. “It is a luxury.”
But one that can be life-changing, as she well knows. As Marshall said in her remarks in Washington:
“I am now a member of the middle class who brings a very unique perspective to higher education. I have two daughters who will never have to ask if they will go to college, but instead where they will attend. The cycle of poverty has been broken.”