Natalie Orf didn’t realize how much she cared about taking part in commencement ceremonies over the weekend at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to walk, especially if it was going to be a virtual commencement,” she said.
But as she got further and further into her final semester, and particularly after learning UMSL would be holding in-person commencement ceremonies for the first time in two years, Orf found herself looking forward to the ritual more and more.
She especially wanted to be able to share the experience with her 4-year-old son, Terrance, who had to sacrifice time with his mother over the past 4½ years while she worked toward her bachelor’s degree in economics.
“This is something that I want to show him and take pictures and look back on,” she said. “And it’s something that I want to show other moms, ‘You can do this, too.’”
She’s displayed great focus and drive throughout the years-long journey that preceded her walk across the stage Saturday afternoon at the Mark Twain Athletic Center. She’s also demonstrated the importance of adapting when the circumstances of life upend one’s plans.
Orf, who grew up in St. Charles County, had been planning on going away to college when she got pregnant before her senior year at Fort Zumwalt North High School.
“I knew once I got pregnant that I had to stay close to home,” Orf said. “I was limited in my options.”
She was plotting possible paths as she graduated high school a semester early and gave birth to Terrance in February 2017. She considered community college or several of the region’s private universities, but her mother, Deanna, suggested she look into UMSL.
It turned out Orf’s grade-point average and strong ACT score qualified her for the Chancellor’s Scholarship, which covered the bulk of her tuition from when she enrolled in the fall of 2017 through last spring.
The financial support coupled with its proximity, flexible class schedules and other on-campus resources made UMSL an easy choice, and she’s never regretted it.
“Everyone here is on the same page,” Orf said. “There are a lot of nontraditional students here, a lot of other parents and people that are coming back to school. We’re all here to get our degree. We’re all here to learn. Everyone here is very ambitious.”
Orf started out majoring in biochemistry with the goal to pursue medical school – a dream of hers she’d held since she was 12 years old. But at some point during her freshman year, as she coped with college coursework while caring for her 1-year-old son, the prospect of three more years as an undergraduate followed by four years of medical school and then a residency started to seem like too much.
She knew she wanted to change directions, but she had no idea where to go next.
Fortunately, Orf found her way to UMSL Career Services.
“I’m not exactly sure what pushed me to go to Career Services or who gave me that idea, but I’m so glad that I did,” Orf said. “They were a huge help. I took their personal assessment quizzes, and then they sat down with me, and we were able to talk about what those meant and what kind of careers I could go into.”
She liked the idea of getting involved in the business side of health care, and she looked at a few majors that might help her get there. Her older sister, who at the time was pursuing a degree in economics at Southeast Missouri State University, encouraged her to give the major a try.
Orf sought out a meeting with Professor Anne Winkler, then the chair of the Department of Economics, to learn more about UMSL’s program and how it could develop her analytical thinking and understanding of the economic principles at play in the health care market.
“If you’ve met Anne, she’s just such a lively person, and she just completely captures you,” Orf said. “She’s such a great person. We’ve gotten close over the years. She took me around and introduced me to some people and some of the professors and told me about the program, and I absolutely fell in love with it.”
The students in the Department of Economics are a tightknit group. They often hang out and study together in between classes in the Sharon G. Levin Economics Resources Center, a computer lab and tutoring center on the fourth floor of the Social Sciences and Business Building.
Orf made fast friends with many of her new classmates. She started working as a tutor in the ERC in the fall of 2019. She got involved in the Women In Economics student organization, and this year served as the group’s president.
Along the way, Winkler recommended Orf as the first recipient of the Manjarrez Hawn and Centene Charitable Foundation Scholarship in Economics, established by Marcela Manjarrez (Hawn), a 1998 UMSL economics graduate and now the senior vice president and chief communications officer at Centene Corporation.
“I worked with Marcela to set up the scholarship while I was chair, and I am very invested in it,” Winkler said. “Mike Allison and I worked as co-chairs, and we met Natalie and were both really impressed with her. We both agreed that she would be a great fit and would be a person who would potentially want to get to know Marcela. I could see the potential mentoring benefits.”
Winkler even helped coordinate a dinner meeting between Manjarrez and Orf, which would became the start of a mentoring relationship that continues today.
“I have gotten to personally know Natalie over the past several years,” Manjarrez said. “I am very impressed with her. Not only is she and outstanding student, she is an extremely intelligent individual with remarkable intellectual curiosity, drive and determination to succeed. I am impressed and inspired to see her work so hard to excel and overcome any obstacles that have come in her path.”
Manjarrez recommended Orf apply for an internship last summer at Centene, and Orf landed the position, working in the network development and contracting department.
She had a supportive supervisor, Brad Thames, who helped gain hands-on experience and exposed her to a lot of the ins and outs of the company, and now that she’s completed her degree, she’s hoping she can return to Centene on a full-time basis.
Orf’s allowed herself a little time to celebrate all that she’s accomplished already.
As fate would have it, Manjarrez delivered the address at the College of Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony Saturday afternoon. Orf could hardly wait to introduce her family to Manjarrez after the ceremony and at a dinner afterward.
“All the pieces have just fallen into place so perfectly,” Orf said.
She knows it wasn’t all luck. She benefitted greatly from her parents and siblings, who supported her throughout her time at UMSL, giving her a place to live and helping her care for Terrance whenever she needed time to study or work. In addition to her tutoring job, she’s held various positions as a bartender or server while working toward her degree.
Terrance, too, has helped her succeed.
“I got so lucky with him, too,” Orf said. “He’s such a great kid. He’s just a trooper. He goes with the flow with anything, and he’s awesome and funny and happy all the time. I am really blessed with him. He pushes me to be a better mom and better woman, for him.”
Orf feels blessed, too, now that she’s finished her degree, that she’s put herself in a better position to be able to provide for him as he continues to grow and develop in the years ahead.