When she arrived at CSU Stanislaus, Marilee Shaw was unquestionably intelligent. What she lacked, however, was more or less every other characteristic a successful college student needs.
She was shy and withdrawn, always sitting near the back of the class. She lacked ambition and drive. Even after failing out of CSU Stanislaus and working her way back in, the English major exerted herself only enough to attain passing grades.
"I was easily intimidated by everyone else," Shaw said. "I made excuses for myself. There was a culture about me in the English department — 'Marilee's a screw-up.'"
Within two years of her return to CSU Stanislaus, Shaw had earned the respect and support of many of those same professors. She graduated in 2010 with a dual bachelor's degree in English and gender studies, and now she's nearing a master's degree in English literature. She's even presented her own research three times at the National Women's Studies Association Conference and was recently accepted into the association's Women of Color Leadership Project.
The change in Shaw's path began with a gender studies course taught by lecturer Robin Baldridge. The subject, which puts great emphasis on the examination of social constructions of identity, struck a chord with a student who was uprooted as a child and long struggled to find her own identity.
Born in Merced, Shaw grew up in England and was a self-proclaimed perfectionist as a student. But she moved back to the Central Valley with her mother at age 15, and she found it hard to make new friends or stay motivated in school. Shaw earned her associate's degree at Merced College and transferred to CSU Stanislaus with the goal of becoming an English teacher, but there was no true inspiration behind it.
It was Baldridge's course that first offered that inspiration. Shaw took another gender studies course and another and another, and she began viewing topics in her literature courses through new lenses. Her English professors encouraged the new line of thought and the fresh angle on oft-critiqued stories.
"They made me feel like I was a needed voice," Shaw said. "They pushed me to keep talking."
English department chair Scott Davis and Professor Susan Marshall, in particular, took an interest in Shaw. Davis took her on as a teaching assistant — as did Baldridge — allowing her to give lectures and overcome what was left of her shyness. Marshall helped foster a passion for literature that Shaw had once disregarded as "boring" and encouraged Shaw as she began her master’s thesis, in which she explores the ideas of desire and constrained sexuality in the works of Henry James.
Many college students arrive without a defined academic goal and find their way through trial and error. Many arrive with a specific plan but end up drawn in another direction. Shaw was more the latter, and she said students should be willing to follow that spark wherever it appears.
"If your major is not inspiring you as much as you need, take a few crossover classes," Shaw said. "They're closely related to the major you've already declared interest in, but the perspective and focus will be different than what you're used to. That may be the new direction that will give you the push you need to be passionate about your work and ultimately be a success."
Shaw is thriving as a graduate student, thanks in part to support and encouragement from gender studies program director Betsy Eudey. When she completes her master's degree, she plans on applying to Ph.D. programs in gender studies or English.
"The faculty here have made me a better person," Shaw said. "They care about my success. They're invested, and that keeps me going. It's like they're part of my family."
Shaw's success has come in spite of a workplace-related injury that left her with chronic pain in her head and neck. Even reading can be painful and difficult, let alone writing or driving. She requires painkillers to function normally, and higher doses when she has to drive to campus. She said she receives around 160 injections of stronger pain medication every six months.
Shaw said she might need to take a year off school for physical therapy, and if that's not successful, she could resort to dictation software and audio books to continue her studies. These are new obstacles, but they are ones she faces with new motivation.
"I used to make excuses for not going to class," she said. "Now I have a legitimate one, but I just tell myself to keep going. Don't let them think you are what you were."