The G could stand for a lot of things in Ashley Smith’s life.
Take your pick: Gumption. Grief. Graduation.
That’s the one word Smith keeps coming back to as she describes her journey toward the doctoral degree she’ll receive in a few days from UNC Greensboro’s Department of Counseling and Educational Development.
At 35, Smith is closing in on her fourth college degree, including a bachelor’s, a master’s and now a PhD in counseling and counselor education from UNCG. And grace has seen her through.
“My concept of grace is still developing,” Smith says. “I think of grace as being patient with yourself, of giving yourself the space to learn and grow from the things that you’re encountering, without the expectations of perfection.”
Smith pauses a moment, gathering her thoughts inside a quiet classroom of UNCG’s stately Curry Building.
“For me,” she says at last, “grace is being enough as you are.”
That’s not as easy as it sounds, especially in a world fraught with travails.
Smith grew up in Greensboro, the third of her mother Brenda’s four children. The tight-knit family lived in a neighborhood near the Greensboro Coliseum. It wasn’t an affluent place, but it was rich in culture.
“We had 44 countries and 43 languages represented in the student population at my high school,” Smith says. “It helped me see the beauty of diversity.”
But it wasn’t all beautiful. There was heartache, too. Smith was a second-grader when she lost her grandfather. And her best friend died suddenly when he was just 8 years old.
“When I was in fifth grade at Peck Elementary, one of my classmates had already given up on school. He knew he was going to drop out,” Smith says. “I remember telling him, ‘You’re so smart; you can do anything.” But something was lost there. And I just kept coming back to the importance of having someone to believe in you and your dreams. I always wanted to be that one person who was consistently there, and that’s what led me to counseling.”
Smith grew up to become an elementary school counselor, working in the field for four years.
She came back to UNCG when she started seeing things within the system she wanted to fix.
Smith understood the work she was doing was important. But she wanted to reach more children in need.
How could she do that? By empowering other future school counselors.
“My focus has always been kids, and helping students believe in the beauty of their dreams,” Smith says. “I came to realize that if I was an educator for future school counselors, that would magnify my impact. I could reach more kids through my college students as they go on to their own schools as counselors.”
When Smith decided to pursue a PhD, there was never a doubt where she would go.
Her first college degree – a bachelor’s in Asian Studies – had come from a different university.
“It was fine. I had fun. But my professors felt distant,” Smith says. “When I came to UNCG for my second degree the professors were ‘there,’ you know? They were very approachable, and you could stop by their offices to talk. And I just loved being on a campus that was super diverse. The faculty in CED were very open, fun, even playful. Yes this is hard, but it can be fun, too. They challenge you, but they also support you. That made a difference for me. UNCG felt like home.”
That sense of home helped Smith get through another wave of personal losses. Last September, an uncle died from COVID-19. Another uncle died in January, and then her oldest sister, Jeanne, died suddenly this September. She was just 46 years old.
“Losing her was really hard. I’ve had to find grace to keep going,” Smith says. “My sister was very instrumental in encouraging me to get my doctorate. We were just talking about graduating, and at the time I was in the midst of writing my dissertation. I was writing the day we found her, and there were feelings of, ‘I’m doing this? I should’ve been with my sister.’ But she was the one who was always pushing me. So then it became a mission: I have to do this for her.”
Now the work is done. On Friday evening, Dec. 10, at the Greensboro Coliseum, Ashley Smith will get her PhD and celebrate the grace found during her time at UNCG.
Story by Jeff Mills, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications