Graduation Profile: Senior perseveres to give speech of a lifetime

As a first-generation college student and a single parent earning minimum wage, Alyssa Cole was stressed and frustrated. At the end of her rope, she decided to write a letter to the one person she thought could help, President Barack Obama.ColePodium

“Writing to him was basically a last resort,” Cole, a Garden City senior, said. “If anyone could help me it would be him. … At least I can make him aware of the issues single parents are facing when they are trying to get their education and take care of their families as well.”

A few years later, Cole received a phone call from the White House. They had kept her letter and during the president’s January visit to Lawrence, they wanted her to introduce the president of the United States.

Working with some of her professors and mentors, Cole prepared a few words based on what she wrote in her original letter.

“In 2013, I wrote a letter to the president addressing concerns that I had about education and affordable child care. Education has maintained such an important role in my life and during that point in time I was almost forced to make the decision between obtaining an education, working or taking care of my children. I wrote the letter because I did not want to have to make the choice among the three. It is so important that affordable child care is available to parents to pursue or continue their education. There were times that I spent my entire paycheck paying for one week of daycare, a cycle that is impossible to maintain,” Cole said in her introduction. “In the United States we should have the opportunity to pursue a career and an education while at the same time building quality lives for ourselves and for our children. I am happy to see that the president is pushing to expand these opportunities.”

Prior to her speech, Cole had the opportunity to meet with President Obama. He asked about her field of study and some of the research she’d been working on. As a history major with a minor in African & African-American studies, Cole discussed her work on African-American women in the Vietnam War and the challenge of her research, since no books have been written about the history of African-American women in the military.

“He told me I need to be the one to write that book,” Cole said. “That was encouraging. That someone cares about the research you’re doing.”

After graduating in May, Cole plans to take the president’s advice and continue her research while earning a master’s at KU and eventually earning her Ph.D.

While she now plans to make her career in academia, her future wasn’t always clear and the path to graduation was full of challenges. As a first-generation and non-traditional student, Cole said she felt she had a different perspective on school, the classroom experience and what’s important.

“I think being a first-generation student has pushed me to set an example for my family and my children. I think that’s been a driving factor for me that I’ll be the first in my family and how proud they’ll be of me,” Cole said. “Knowing that I’m stubborn, that has helped me to stay in school and be successful, even though there are times when I wanted to quit and I wanted to just give up. That stubborn feeling in the back of my mind said ‘you need to do this, you need to stay.’”