Rachel M. Will
Pine Bluff, AR
M.S. in Human Environmental Sciences
“I needed something to fit my schedule, and this was perfect. I can do my work at home. I don’t have to leave my office and go to class. It works perfect for me as a full-time employee. And if I have to move on from UAPB, of course I gotta be a Hog! When I saw that letter saying ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted,’ it brought tears to my eyes. I know, deep down, my grandma is proud of me and what I've accomplished so far.”
Since graduating from high school in the small Arkansas town of Rison, located some 30 minutes southwest of where she now lives in Pine Bluff, Rachel M. Will, 36, lets nothing keep her from fulfilling her dream of obtaining her Master of Science in Human Environmental Sciences—not time, not finances, not naysayers, and not family tragedy.
Will received her associate of arts degree in general studies in fall 2014 and her bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies in spring 2023 from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She worked for the Jefferson County Cooperative Extension Service for two years starting in 2014, where she learned much about the family and consumer sciences field. In 2016, she accepted her current position as an extension assistant specialist in the Cooperative Extension Program at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Her work is part administrative and part research. Her duties vary from day to day, letting her put her wide skill sets to good use.
“I do a lot of things here. I wear many hats,” Will said. “Just kind of flip the brim around a little bit, change the hat. I remember taking FCS in high school. Back then, I never really touched on it and grasped on it. What really made me get in-depth with it is when I started working at UAPB for the family and consumer sciences department.”
With this new knowledge and interest, Will identified the direction she wanted her education to take, but work hours, available degree offerings at UAPB, and geographic constraints limited her options. Encouraged by UAPB faculty, Will researched online degree possibilities and found the U of A’s online Master of Science in Human Environmental Sciences degree. It offered the field of interest, class subjects and degree option she wanted but allowed her the freedom and flexibility to attend part time without sacrificing her current employment.
“I'm a full-time employee at UAPB, but I have to honestly say they don't have online degrees,” Will admitted. “I needed something to fit my schedule, and this was perfect. I can do my work at home. I don’t have to leave my office and go to class. It works perfect for me as a full-time employee. And if I have to move on from UAPB, of course I gotta be a Hog! When I saw that letter saying ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted,’ it brought tears to my eyes. I know, deep down, my grandma is proud of me and what I've accomplished so far.”
Gathering the time, drive and determination to complete her degree has not been easy for Will. Meeting work and class requirements requires sacrifices in other areas of her life.
“I've become a bookworm, I guess you could say a homebody,” Will said. “Friends and family ask me, ‘You wanna hang out?’ ‘No, I got this assignment,’ so that's where all my time goes. That's what's really important for me because I am determined to get this degree. I want this degree. You just don't know. I want it, bad.”
Will began her academic journey at a different university. For her bachelor’s, she initially pursued a degree in early childhood but switched her major to human development family studies, as that degree expanded her list of potential career paths. Her current master’s degree continues that career path, with potential job opportunities in both primary and secondary education, child care, social work, research, and many positions in farm and home management education.
Her goal is to prove to all doubters that she can and will succeed in obtaining a graduate degree.
“You can do social work and you can teach a family consumer science class,” Will said. “I may stay in extension because I want to be able to give back to the community. Some people see African American women—and not just African American women; women, period—they feel like we are not as adequate as others. If you put your mind to it, the goals in your life can be endless. Anything is possible. That's what I want to show young girls from my hometown. Just because you come from the small town of Rison, you don’t have to stay there all your life. You can go to college, get your degree, work and do whatever you want to do. You can go and be whatever you want to be. All you have to do is be positive.”
Having outside support, communicating with others who understand her circumstances and can relate to her struggles, is vital to Will’s educational journey. She maintains connection to others with similar interests by joining several supportive sororities. She is an active member of Sigma Gamma Rho, a sorority included within the Divine 9, a group of historically black, Greek-letter organizations otherwise known as the National Pan-Hellenic Council. She is also a member of Kappa Omicron Nu, the Honor Society within Human Sciences.
This support is especially important for Will, who is no stranger to family tragedy, especially the unexpected kind. The sudden and unanticipated loss of her niece to gun violence devastated Will.
“She was at a house and someone decided they wanted to do a drive-by and she got hit,” Will recalled. “She was killed instantly. It's still fresh. I'm having to press through that. She was my niece, and she was a big part of me. She was like my best friend. Me and her were like that (fingers crossed). We were so close, thick as thieves. It's hard to persevere. Daily, I have my moments where I break down. Losing her is another driving force behind me and my education. I always tried to set a perfect example for her, to show that you can be anything you want to. You just got to put your mind to it.”
Will describes her approach to her education in three words: determination, perfection, and overachievement.
“I am determined because a lot of people have doubted me and talked about me and made me feel like I can't do this,” she said. “When I was younger, I had a third-grade teacher. She used to try to put me down. Sometimes I look back on that and I think about the negative things she said in front of my peers, which was wrong. As I look back, those memories motivate me to do even better, to soar beyond what people could ever imagine. All my accomplishments, I can honestly say they make me proud because I never thought I would be here today. Second: I can only say that I’m a perfectionist (laugh). I'm pretty sure my professors probably say, ‘Oh God, here she is, emailing me again.’ I know that no one is perfect, but in my eyes, my work has to be. If it's not right, I'm emailing my instructor. Third: Overachiever. My good friend—she's like a sister to me, she used to be my co-worker until she moved to North Carolina—gave me the name ‘overachiever’ last year. I'm going to tell you why: we had a class together, and she did the assignment as instructed. But me, I had to go above beyond—if the instructor told me five pages, it might be 12.”
Will’s long-term goals include, if possible, to remain with extension because of her love of research. Neither does she intend to limit her options, she said.
“I started networking when I went to an AAFCS (American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences) conference in Baltimore, Maryland,” Will said. “I was talking to one lady in particular, a professor at North Carolina. She talked about offering me a job there when I received my master's. So, I could end up anywhere, but I do plan on going on to get my doctoral degree as well.”
Will was one of 29 online students to receive the W.E. Manning Memorial Scholarship for online U of A students for the 2023-2024 academic year.
“There are people out there that have the funds to be able to go to school because they can pay out of pocket,” Will said. “Me, it's not like that. I work but my income is not adequate at all. It doesn't add up, and I struggle. This scholarship helps take care of some of the money that I need to go to school. It really helped me out tremendously, I can honestly say, and if I can get it next year, I pray that I'd be able to get it so I can continue my education because it is one of the things that actually helps drive me to go to college.”