Editor's Note: This profile is part of a series that features the stories of more than a dozen graduates whose outstanding journeys have culminated in a UMGC degree.
That Siera Woods is graduating with a bachelor’s degree from University of Maryland Global Campus on Dec. 16 is nothing short of remarkable.
Woods was born in Dillon, South Carolina, where her ancestors—who were enslaved--had tilled the fields, and to say she had a difficult upbringing is an understatement. She had her first child at age 12. She and her daughter were taken in by a foster care family before they arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2010 to live with relatives.
Woods graduated from high school and earned an associate degree in liberal studies from the University of the District of Columbia in 2018. But by then she had two other children and was homeless. She built a support group while taking advantage of the Generation Hope Scholarship Program, a nonprofit initiative that works with teen parents who face adversity.
“They took me under their wing, and that helped a lot,” Woods said. “They helped me find housing and employment during my studies. I moved in with my daughter’s grandmother, and that provided me with a respite so I could focus on my studies.”
But nothing good lasted long for Woods.
“The house caught fire around four in the morning,” she said. “Grandma had to throw my baby son out the window, and she had to jump out the window. And after that, we were back to square one, looking for housing.”
Nonetheless, Woods wanted to get an education. She did some research on colleges and found that UMGC offered classes to fit her schedule. Her Hope Scholarship caseworker told her about the success they had with other students going to UMGC.
“I wanted to finish college. I thought I would give it a try,” Woods said.
Then, just as she really got started at UMGC, the pandemic hit. Her schoolwork got off to a poor start and she failed every class the first semester. Both her first daughter’s father and her brother died shortly after she started, although not of COVID. And she continued to have trouble figuring out the UMGC platform, navigating her classes and staying on track “because those eight weeks go by real fast.”
That’s when help from UMGC’s academic coaches kicked in.
Woods said they gave her tips on time management, sent her instructional videos and enrolled her in a course that showed her how to use the platform, submit projects and cite research sources.
“Those resources really helped me,” she said. “The next semester I passed every single class. And the next semester, I got all As and Bs.”
Meanwhile, as she struggled to pay for the education, the university assigned her a tuition coordinator. The UMGC Financial Aid Office sent her information that allowed her to tap free internet programs, get scholarships or grants through the District of Columbia and access a university emergency fund that helped her with mounting bills when she was out of work.
“Every time that I had an issue, if I needed something, they connected me with the right people,” she said. “All of these resources helped me get through that hump.”
Woods earned a general studies degree at UMGC after taking multiple business courses. For the time being, she plans to remain at her job with Prince George’s County helping people get COVID-related assistance. After that, her goal is to start her own nonprofit in South Carolina, which she said does not have adequate resources to help people in need.
All through her UMGC experience, she said, professors reached out with help and guidance, offering to give her more time, especially after her brother’s death.
“It just really motivated me to continue, because there were times where I wanted to quit,” she said.
One professor in particular, Christopher Davis, who taught her capstone class, was helpful.
“He just basically told me that the UMGC staff was there to help, and don’t be afraid to reach out, don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she said. “And just after having that pep talk with him, my classes that semester went by really smoother than what I expected.”
Woods hopes her journey carries lessons for her children. At age 30, she is watching the daughter she had at age 12 finish up high school.
“She's seen me go from ground zero, up and down,” Woods said. “And I pray and hope that everything that she's seen me do and accomplish, that she takes it in and just follows my footsteps when it comes to being resilient.”