Social Science Major Readies for Social Justice Action
May 18, 2022
McNair Scholar Bethany Saint-Smith

Bethany Saint-Smith wanted to earn her General Educational Development (GED) certificate in hopes of becoming a district manager, instead of a store manager in her hometown of Modesto. 

That was four years ago, and Saint-Smith is now a McNair Scholar and a Stanislaus State social science major with an emphasis in psychology, communications and gender studies. 

Her interests include social mobility for African American women, policy and legislation writing to benefit the underserved, and building bridges from accessibility to resources where marginalized individuals lack appropriate mentorship and supportive services. That she is positioned to prepare for such work continues to amaze her. 

When she returned home to Modesto, wanting to be closer to her mother, Saint-Smith was offered a position as a manager of a pizza restaurant and bar. With a GED, she could become a district manager for a larger corporation.  

Her Cal Works caseworker suggested she attend Learning Quest, a non-profit continuation high school program that prepares adults for the GED exam. 

Just as it had been when she attended Downey High School and didn’t graduate, math was her stumbling block. Saint-Smith worked at it, though, and within four months had earned her GED. 

“Not only had I graduated with my GED, but I graduated with honors,” Saint-Smith said. “This is something I never would have been able to accomplish while I was in high school. I came from a very difficult upbringing with a broken family and living in poverty. Things were tricky for me being bi-racial and raised by a white mom and not having my Black dad present. There were a lot of different obstacles I was facing in a city that, at the time, didn’t embrace diversity as well as it could.” 

After leaving high school, she moved to San Francisco and began managing a Starbucks until Jamba Juice offered her more money. At 24, she and a friend drove across the country to New York, where she managed another Jamba Juice. 

She embraced life there. She learned how to bartend. A singer and songwriter who’d played several instruments at Downey, she formed a blues-rock band in Manhattan, and played in a restaurant/bar/music venue she managed in the East Village. Saint-Smith married, and on March 13, 2013, gave birth to her son, Sidney. 

In time, the couple moved to his native Argentina, where they aspired to start a business. After falling victim to domestic violence, Bethany sought change and began searching for resources that could help shift her and her son’s life to safety and betterment. She began writing a memoir. 

“I talked to family members from both sides, and I was talking to my mom and hearing a lot of stories I never heard before, Saint-Smith said. “I’m writing, writing, writing. I get to age 34, and I'm not willing to put down on these pages what’s truly going on in my life, because I already wrote about it happening before. That was a rude awakening for me. I stopped writing my memoir and decided to start planning.” 

She knew she had to leave the abusive situation, but as an immigrant she had no rights or paperwork to exit. Her husband would have to allow it. Saint-Smith said she was able to get him to agree to let her and her son go. 

She was broken, she said. Poorer than she’d ever been but reunited with her mom and sister and looking to start over. She never returned to Argentina. 

Instead, she went to school. After she earned her GED, her transition counselor recommended she attend Modesto Junior College. Saint-Smith never imagined that for herself but enrolled.  

She made the dean’s list, won an award in statistics, and began dreaming of her future. 

“I wanted to study criminal justice and sociology,” Saint-Smith said. “I was very interested in what went wrong in my life when I was a kid. I could relate to people who might need the same kind of help I needed. I wanted to be a forensic psychologist. I thought about the study of human behavior and forensics with the justice system.  The people who go through that are the ones who get the least amount of attention with regards to mental health.” 

She earned three associate degrees from MJC, she said, but Stanislaus County Cal Works would not provide financial assistance for her to attend a four-year college. They offered her a position, instead. Saint-Smith was flattered but determined to continue her education. She said she demanded social justice for herself and others who were held back from achieving social mobility. Stanislaus, she said she learned, was one of the few counties to deny assistance to recipients attending four-year colleges. 

The county changed course, and with that continued financial support, she began Stan State in the fall, was welcomed into the honors program and then named a McNair Scholar. She'll be earning her bachelor’s in Social Sciences before moving forward to graduate school to enter a master’s or Ph.D. program in Public Administration and Policy. 

“In the panel interview, they asked, ‘what do you want to do?’” she said. “I could only answer, ‘I just want to do better than what I’ve been told I can do.’ 

“It was powerful when I got the acceptance. I remember being very humbled. When I was interviewed, I felt like Ronald McNair. I came from this tiny seed, and I didn’t have a lot, but I knew I needed water to grow. I kept going and growing and expanding, and once you start that and are humble and allow people to help you grow, and accept feedback, you bloom. McNair knew he had to do that. It wasn’t going to be easy for him, a Black man. But he knew what he had to do to move forward. I see that.”