Esther Gray, an administrative secretary at the Maxwell School, earned a bachelor's degree last year and received the Outstanding Continuing Education Student Award from the University Continuing Education Association.
A Journey of Self-Discovery
Everywhere she goes lately, Esther Gray makes people cry. They cried at City Hall when she read aloud from her personal story of domestic abuse, written as part of her volunteer work at Vera House, a Syracuse shelter for battered women and their children. More tears flowed at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs 75th anniversary dinner when Dean John Palmer presented Gray, an administrative secretary at the Center for Policy Research, with the Spirit of Public Service Award, usually reserved for citizens of national renown. And there may not have been a dry eye in the house when Gray received the Outstanding Continuing Education Student Award—the top distinction for part-time degree students across the United States—from the University Continuing Education Association at its national conference in San Diego in April. “To be honored this way at the national level is an amazing experience,” Gray says. “It’s so far beyond any dream I ever dared to hope for, or ever thought possible, that it is even more difficult to comprehend.”|
A 1999 University College graduate, Gray achieved a 3.97 grade point average while earning a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and women’s studies from the College of Arts and Sciences. She began taking classes at age 45, while working two jobs to support three teenagers. She is the first part-time student to be honored as a Remembrance Scholar—the University’s top student award—and was named one of University College’s 1999 Alumni Scholars. “To fully understand what this means to me,” Gray says of the national award, “you have to understand the depth and vividness of my memories of self-doubt and fear of failure, as well as the incredible gratitude I feel toward the counselors, teachers, fellow students, and friends who believed in me long before I believed in myself.”
Gray began working at Syracuse University in March 1976 in what was then the Metropolitan Studies Program. “I was 30 years old, and at the halfway point of a 20-year abusive marriage,” she says. “My job opened up a world that I didn’t have a clue existed. Knowing that people valued my work and genuinely cared about me helped me start the process of recognizing what I was living with.”
As Gray broke away from her marriage, she sought the support of the Al-Anon organization, where she eventually worked as a volunteer. Here, too, she discovered new talents and inner resources. “I found I had good organizational skills and abilities as an events planner,” she says. After serving as co-chair for the AA/Al-Anon annual convention, an event attended by 1,500 people, she realized it was time for a new challenge. “I knew I needed to do something that depended only on me,” she says.
Gray took her first class in summer 1991. She remembers the first time she raised her hand, cautious and frightened, to answer a question. “There was a wonderful TA in that class who told me, ‘Esther, speak up! There is no such thing as a wrong answer,’” she says. “My teachers saw things in me, and knew how hard to push. That encouragement is so important for returning students—especially women who, like me, come in assuming some level of failure.”
Receiving a hard-earned A in her first course, Gray returned to the classroom that fall, and every semester since. She discovered the joy of research; of making connections among such courses as biology, math, religion, and philosophy; of losing herself in the writing of a paper; of growing and transforming personally. And she discovered the joy of finishing a challenging project.
Her study culminated in an honors research thesis that shares the stories of women who survived emotionally and verbally abusive relationships. She also organized two all-University forums addressing domestic violence. “I looked for a way to help women not feel how I had felt—hurt, not valued,” she says. “I wanted to say to them: You don’t have to live this way or feel this way. The awful things you’ve been told about yourself aren’t true.”
This semester Gray began graduate work in anthropology, for which she has a real passion. “Anthropology is about people and what motivates them,” she says. “If you can comprehend what people believe in, then you can have some hope of a deeper understanding, appreciation, and, ultimately, acceptance of the people themselves.”