Moving Forward

Mary Clemens draws inspiration for her master’s studies from motherhood and family loss

Mary Clemens and her daughters

Mary Clemens (center) with three of her daughters, (clockwise from front left) Hannah (16), Bethany (18) and Grace (18). Not pictured is Alex, who is away at Truman State University. Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos

 

This May, the Clemens family will celebrate four graduations.

“My oldest daughter, Alex, will be graduating from Truman State and the twins, Grace and Bethany, are graduating from Nerinx Hall,” said Mary Clemens, coordinator of communications and events in The Graduate School. She didn’t mention that she is the fourth grad, having completed her master of liberal arts degree in University College, all while working full time and raising four daughters—her youngest is Hannah—with her husband, Rick, MA ’99.

“I wanted to get my master’s right after college, but I got married right away and then had a baby right after that,” Clemens said. So she put it off, but in 2007, Clemens started working at Washington University and realized that with the employee tuition benefit, she could finally earn her master’s.

At the time three of her daughters were in elementary school, and it wasn’t an easy decision for Clemens to go back to school. In part, Clemens said, “I did it for my children, so that they could see that education is important, no matter how old you are.”

Grace Clemens grew up watching her mom go to school.

“I was always really proud of her for getting her master’s. I thought that was awesome,” she said. “I would even want her to go get her PhD.”

Clemens’ family shaped her scholarship. In February 2010, her sister was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, forcing Clemens to take some time off from her studies. In 2011, her sister passed.

Clemens focused on her family for the next few years, but decided to return to her program in summer 2014. Her first class back was Professor Henry I. Schvey’s The American Dream: Myth and Reality. In a personal essay about the American dream for class, Clemens wrote about how terminal illness impacts a family and its dream for the future.

“I had always envisioned myself getting older with my sister. I had to revise what my twilight years were going to be,” Clemens said. “And to have that class and to have the ability to write and work through those feelings was really cathartic and really helped me recover from what I’d gone through.”

Clemens kept that thread through the rest of her studies, eventually writing a master’s thesis titled “Grief and the Art of Survival” that looks at the many ways we memorialize lost loved ones, wars, catastrophes and other traumas.

Her thesis advisor, Stamos Metzidakis, professor of French and comparative literature, remembers how important family was for Clemens. “She was kind enough to invite me to her house for dinner to meet them all,” Metzidakis said. “I saw right there and then how much family meant to her and why she would be so intrigued and concerned with the concepts of commemoration and loss.”

Clemens is excited to celebrate her accomplishments as well as the rest of her family’s. “We are all on a journey,” Clemens said. “It can take us directly where we want to go, or on a circuitous route that we might never have imagined. I try to remind myself that every choice I’ve made along the way has lead me to where I am right now.”

 

by Rosalind Early


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