At the end of a long day at work, 2017 WCU graduate Joanna Woodson sets out on foot from her hip co-working space in Washington D.C. toward the small apartment she shares with another struggling 20-something with political aspirations.
It has been an admittedly tough first year out of college for Woodson, who made a name for herself at WCU as the student who led the university's successful bid to serve as a polling location and a huge champion for voter participation. Woodson had come to WCU as a transfer student after dropping out from another institution. But here, she got her life and her education back on track. She excelled, both in and out of class. She found a passion for service and for politics and was determined to create change.
Her success at WCU helped her land a couple of scholarships, including the Jack A. Rusher Scholarship, one of the donor-supported scholarships specifically set aside for students with financial need.
She decided to major in social work, and she set a clear plan for her post-college life: Move to D.C., work with a political advocacy group or non-profit she believed in, attend law school, and perhaps one day run for office or eventually pursue a judgeship.
That was the dream. Last spring, in her final year of school, Woodson set about chasing it. She applied for more than a dozen D.C.-based internship positions that would fulfill her final course requirement, a field placement in social work. Half she never heard back from. The other half turned her down. Finally, she landed an internship position with the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Unfortunately, it was only for the summer and wouldn't fulfill her course requirement, but she packed her bags anyway and moved into a temporarily sublet apartment in her dream city.
By August, she was wrapping up her summer internship and had been through another dozen applications for fall positions. None came through. So, she put in a call to some friends she knew from her work with Students Learn Students Vote – the national coalition that had helped with voter initiatives while at WCU. Not only did they help her find her field placement at the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, but Sam Novey and Joey Wozniak also offered her part time work with their newly-founded social enterprise, Mile 22 Associates. Mile 22 is a consultancy group that helps voter participation organizations find funding and mobilize communities.
Just as things seemed to be coming together, life got hard. Her field placement only paid a small stipend, her sublet had come to an end, and landlords for a second rental backed out at the last minute. She found herself couch-surfing for a bit. When she was completely without a place to stay, she resorted to hotel rooms on points thanks to a relative who travels a lot.
Woodson said she thought about giving up, often. But, then she thought about all the people who had believed in her at WCU: Lane Perry in Service Learning who first got her interested in voter initiatives, professors who got excited about her interest in politics, even Chancellor David Belcher who stood behind her efforts to make the on-campus polling station happen. She thought about her scholarships – realizing now that they are playing a significant role in keeping her debt down and making her dream all the more possible.
"You just have to accept it and keep showing up," Woodson said about what she has learned this past year. "That's been my mantra through the year. If I keep showing up, if I just keep giving it what I've got, things are going to come together and get better."
She was right. She made it through the fall. She graduated. Mile 22 and Associates offered her a full-time job and a co-working space in the city. She found a roommate and an apartment walking distance from her office. She applied for law school and was accepted, with plans to start at the University of Maryland in the fall of 2019.
Woodson said there's no question her time at WCU played a huge role in her being able to land on her feet. "There's no way I could do what I'm doing now without having worked for the Andrew Goodman Foundation and the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning with Lane Perry," she said. "All the skills that I picked up there and all of the hustle that I learned in that role very clearly translated to what I'm doing now."
She said she loves the work she's doing at Mile 22 and "counts her lucky stars" to have the opportunity to work with the company full time.
This year has brought with it one big change for Woodson: for the first time in a long time she's not sure where her life is headed. But, she knows her walk home will end at her apartment with its roof-top view of D.C. and that she'll get up the next morning and get to live the dream, again.
"Now that life has been messy for a while, I don't know," she said of her next step. "I know that I love this city, and I don't want to leave anytime soon. I know that I still love the law. And that's about it. It's so open ended. The possibilities are endless, which is so scary but also so exciting."
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