December graduate Meredith Alton returns to school to make a difference

Meredith Alton stands in classroom

Meredith Alton returned to college and dedicated herself to studying and earning a bachelor’s degree. This December, she graduated summa cum laude with a BS in secondary English and an Honors College certificate, walking as a student marshal during commencement. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Meredith Alton was working as a bartender at an Applebee’s on Kingshighway and Chippewa in south St. Louis when she realized she wanted be a teacher.

She loved the relationships she had developed with her regular patrons and coworkers, but the experience also revealed the stark inequalities present in the St. Louis region.

Alton wanted to do something about it.

“I enjoyed working amidst people who went to city schools, who were in communities that were underserved,” she said. “I was like, ‘I want to serve the community in a different way. I think I could do that.’”

Accomplishing that goal would mean heading back to school, though. Alton’s previous stint in college was short-lived due to a lack of focus. What was meant to be a short break from school to regroup became longer and longer as she started working and raising a family.

Unfortunately, it meant most of her credits didn’t transfer. She would essentially have to start from scratch.

Undeterred, Alton enrolled in the College of Education and Pierre Laclede Honors College at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2018. With a newfound sense of purpose, she dedicated herself to studying and earning straight A’s. This December, she graduated summa cum laude with a BS in secondary English and Honors College certificate, walking as a student marshal during commencement. She’ll also continue teaching English at Normandy High School, where she completed her student teaching practicum.

“I’m ready,” she said. “I feel ready. I’m just really overwhelmed and excited to finally graduate because it’s been something I’ve been looking forward to for about 11 years since I stopped going to school the first time.”

Alton was a model student in high school, graduating at the top of her class in 2005. Her grades earned her a scholarship to study English at Truman State University. After a year, she transferred to Missouri State University.

She enjoyed being away from home for the first time and the freedom it provided. However, that freedom proved to be a double-edged sword when she started missing classes to have fun with friends instead of studying.

Soon, Alton dropped out of school altogether and moved to St. Louis.

It was supposed to be short break to recenter herself, but she started making money in the service industry and then gave birth to her son in 2013. Going back to school fell by the wayside for several years.

Bartending was fun, but Alton wanted to do something that was fulfilling, as well. She had a hunch that teaching English would satisfy that need and enrolled at UMSL.

The decision was easy. The day-to-day realities were less so.

Coming back to school after about decade away from the classroom was overwhelming at first. Alton had to familiarize herself with new technologies and practices, but she quickly adjusted, in part thanks to the Honors College.

“I knew I wanted to do the Honors College thing because I enjoyed the smaller classes and the challenge,” she recalled. “It was more personalized, too, so I’m glad that I did that. I got a few A’s, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to get all A’s. I’m going to do this. I’m going to get a 4.0.’ Then I did it.”

Alton also had to balance parenting and studying, but it turned out to be bonding experience with her two children.

“That was great to give them that example, I’m still working hard to do my work, you need to do your work,” she said. “Now my daughter is in seventh grade, and she sometimes will be slacking, and I’ll be like, ‘Listen, do you remember how hard I worked? How long I was studying until after you guys went to bed? So you can do this. You can take a few hours to study.’”

Despite some late nights, Alton was impressed with the College of Education’s rigor and how well it prepared her to enter the classroom at Normandy High School. She became provisionally certified while working toward her degree and began teaching full-time this school year to satisfy her student teaching practicum requirements.

In the classroom, she presents English as more than poems and plot summaries. It’s a way for her students to learn to think critically and connect their own lives to world around them. But her favorite part about teaching is forging personal connections with students and their parents.

It’s taken hard work to reach students and parents, but the results have been worth it.

“I love teaching high schoolers because they need those relationships the most,” she said. “They’re in that weird, middle ground where you think you’re all grown and you make these grown decisions, but really, you’re a kid who needs people to be there for you. Once you get to know them and get them to work for you because they like you, then they start working for themselves. That’s my favorite part, just seeing those things happen. That’s way more important to me then if they know what happened in a book.”

Next fall, Alton plans to come back to UMSL to pursue a master’s degree in educational administration. But for now, she’s enjoying a break from homework and looking forward to her future at Normandy.

“I’m looking forward to next semester, not being in school while teaching school,” she said. “I plan on, as long as they’ll have me, staying here. I plan on staying here and developing relationships with students, families.”

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