First-Gen Employee Spotlight: Sharon Attaway

My name is Sharon Attaway,

and I currently serve as the Director of Employer Relations for Miami University’s Center for Career Exploration and Success. I hail from Baltimore, Maryland, and I am the youngest of three children born to teenage parents (my mom was 19 when I showed up). When I was 13, my father moved out and never looked back on his responsibilities. From then on, I was raised by my mother who instilled in me the love of reading and learning. Even though my mom’s educational and professional pursuits would be postponed until her early thirties (when she finally got her driver’s licence, her GED, and ventured into the workforce to launch her own career), she encouraged me to stay and excel in school, and to always make smart choices. 

Money, or lack thereof,

would be my biggest challenge as a first-generation student. When my friends were packing for their spring break vacations, I was making plans to stay on campus to pick up extra hours at work. In addition to work study and my part time job at the campus box office, I made money typing papers (on an actual typewriter!), babysitting and cleaning professors’ homes. I would even donate blood at regular intervals to get gift certificates to the campus bookstore! 

To further add to my first semester homesickness,

my mother insisted that I not come home except for the holiday break. She was afraid that if I did, I wouldn’t go back to school. Reflecting now on her tough love, I believe that for me, this was the best thing my mom could have done. She knew that I needed to become more self-reliant, in particular, I needed to find ways to manage my emotions, make friends, and to rely on my abilities to navigate all of the new experiences coming my way.

I entered college as an undecided major.

I loved taking general education classes (Salisbury’s version of the Miami Plan), because I got exposure to subjects that were never on my radar. I changed my major a few times before finally landing on Communication Arts, pursuing a track in Human Communication. I was excited to study how language is used and society’s effect on language and meaning. There were those that said, “how are you going to get a job studying that?” In fact, I had one roommate, dual majoring in Accounting and Finance, who said, “why don’t you get a real major?” It was comments like hers that would sometimes make me doubt my choice of study. And it would take decades before I had the language to validate my academic interests: “major doesn’t equal a career, but rather its one’s lens for learning.” 

Locking down my major gave me the focus I needed.

By the end of my sophomore year, I felt more confident in my academic abilities and more importantly, I felt as if I truly belonged at college. I was thankful for the early advice from upperclassmen who encouraged me to take advantage of my professors’ office hours, form study groups, and to let my hair down every once in a while to have some fun. 

I learned never to underestimate the power of my determination.

Perhaps I get it honestly from my mom, who was determined to make a better life for her children, despite her own challenges. My mom’s early encouragement coupled with pushing me out of her supportive nest gave me no choice but to muscle through that first semester. I learned to ask for help from others and better yet, trust my instincts for solving problems on my own.

I went on to get my masters from Johns Hopkins University.

From there, my professional journey turned to higher education, and I have had the honor to serve some great institutions to include Johns Hopkins University, Indiana University, Colgate University, Michigan Technological University and Miami University.

I am a believer in the power of one; one special person (a parent, a guardian, a mentor, a friend) to serve as a dream champion. I attribute everything I am to my mother’s belief in me and more importantly, encouraging me to believe in myself.