A Mother’s Promise: Against All Odds, Butler Senior is Ready to Graduate | Butler Stories
Maddy Smith and her daughter Arabelle

A Mother’s Promise: Against All Odds, Butler Senior is Ready to Graduate

BY Rachel Stern

PUBLISHED ON May 09 2019

INDIANAPOLIS—Madeline Smith was in third grade when she attended her first college class. It was math. Finite, to be exact. And she loved it.

Her mom, Sarah Taylor, didn’t really have a choice but to bring her young daughter with her. She was a 30-year-old college student at Indiana University. She had returned to college years after giving birth to Smith and realizing, if she wanted to stop working 16-hour shifts and provide a better life for her daughter, a college degree would help. So, Taylor packed up her whole house, put everything in storage except for two tents, and headed to Yellowstone Woods in Bloomington, Indiana with Smith. They camped out for two months—Taylor and her 10-year-old. Taylor bused tables, saving up for an apartment. She had a friend watch Smith during most classes, but when she had to, Taylor brought an extra set of hands with her to class. Turns out those hands shot up in the air on more than one occasion when questions were asked. Especially during Finite.

“I knew I had to make a change to make Madeline’s life better in the long-run, and I am very thankful she was a resilient individual, because she powered through some tough times,” says Taylor, who has worked in Human Resources since graduating from IU. “She was my study buddy who would hold up flashcards for me during dinner, while I was doing laundry, everything. She took notes in her own notebook during Economics. She always loved learning and saw firsthand from those days that knowledge is power, and education can transform your life.”

That love of learning was always on display. In elementary school, Smith preferred reading to riding bikes with her friends. And when she brought home her first B at Southport High School in Perry Township, Smith cried hysterically, studying all night, determined to bring her grade back up to an A.

When it came time to make a decision about college, Taylor was biased. She took her daughter back to Bloomington where the two had many fond memories. Smith earned a 21st Century Scholarship—up to four years of undergraduate tuition at participating universities in Indiana—so Taylor knew her daughter had options. They also visited Butler University.

“After being on campus, Butler became a no-brainer,” Smith says. “I loved the atmosphere here. I loved the fact that just six buildings make up the academic section. There was such a community feel right away. With larger institutions, it felt like you had to walk across an entire city to get to class. I didn’t want to be in a department where there are 25 professors and you never meet half of them, and they don’t know your name, and you are just another face. I wanted to be Maddy, and at Butler, it became instantly obvious to me the I would have that type of experience.”

Then, one day during Smith’s senior year of high school, she sat her mom down. She needed to talk to her. Smith was pregnant. They had a long talk—both cried and were scared—but, Smith made one thing clear: her goals would not shift, and she would go to Butler as planned. Taylor explained that she would understand if Smith needed to take a slightly different route, or adjust her timeline. But Smith was adamant. Nothing would change.

Four years later, Smith is on the cusp of graduation. She will join nearly 1,050 other students on Saturday for Butler’s 163rd Spring Commencement. She will fulfill the promise she not only made to her mom, but to herself, and to her daughter, Arabelle.

The Anthropology major and History minor will walk across the stage right on time, just as she planned four years ago. She is a bit more tired, but also incredibly grateful—for the scholarships, support from faculty and family—and proud—for trusting herself and sticking to her plan.

 

‘I’m exhausted’

The timing, actually, could not have been better for Smith. She was determined to not miss any significant class time, and her daughter was due in December, when Butler was closed for Winter Break.

So, Christmas 2015 arrived, she went to the hospital, and Arabelle arrived on December 27, 2015. Two weeks later, school started, and Smith was in class.

“It was really hard. To be honest, second semester of my first year is a blur,” Smith says, “It is recommended that you have six weeks of bonding time with your baby, and I had like two. But, I would have had to take medical leave if I missed school, and I wanted to graduate on time. It was really difficult, and exhausting, and things you don’t think about, like nursing, were messed up, but I knew I had to get through it.”

On top of having a newborn, Smith had to move to Kokomo during her second semester—about an hour from Butler’s campus—because her mom was relocated from Indianapolis to Tennessee for work. She moved in with her aunt and uncle, and then made the hour-each-way commute every day for classes.

Maddy's daughter, ArabelleShe learned traffic patterns very quickly, she says. She also learned time management.

Each day she woke up at about 5:00 AM, got ready for school, got her daughter ready for daycare, drove to campus for classes, and would return home to pick up her daughter from day care at around 5:00 PM. Then it was dinner time, bath time, bedtime for Arabelle, homework time for Smith, and, hopefully at a reasonable hour, bedtime for Smith.

“The way she has juggled everything has amazed me. But that is Madeline,” Taylor says. “I have seen her up until 2:00 AM working on a paper, or sometimes asleep in a book, trying to finish assignments. Her determination is what has gotten her to this point, and her love of learning.”

It wasn’t always clear to Smith that she made the right choice, though. There were times, she says, she missed out on things like parent-teacher conferences, or making snacks for her daughter’s daycare. Or other things, like homecoming, Greek Life, and just a typical social life on campus. Between classes and taking care of her daughter, Smith has juggled several jobs throughout her four years, such as working at a gas station, working at a fast food restaurant, the Butler IT Help Desk, pizza delivery driver, to name a few.

 

Tight-knit community

Elise Edwards has an adult son, and, after a day of teaching Anthropology as an Associate Professor at Butler, she is drained, she says. So, to see Smith, a first-year student who can juggle being a mom and keep up with her studies, amazed Edwards.

“Maddy is an incredibly smart student. She writes well, thinks well, and despite all of the outside pressures she faces, has remained incredibly focused,” Edwards says. “She is very intellectually curious and, miraculously, hasn’t allowed any additional challenges to get in her way.”

Edwards worked with Smith on an independent study project looking at the Anthropology of Africa. The two handpicked ethnographies on Africa and met weekly to discuss the readings. After graduation, Edwards says, she will really miss these conversations.

But it wasn’t just that Smith was able to keep up, Edwards says. She was often ahead of the class. On more than one occasion, Smith would raise her hand and remind the class that rough drafts were due in a week.

Instructor of German Michelle Stigter was the first person on campus Smith told about her pregnancy. Stigter was her First Year Seminar professor, and the two instantly connected.

“I am the child of teenage parents, and I know the odds are stacked against young women who get pregnant in terms of college completion,” Stigter says. “Being a mom and something else is hard enough, but being a mom and a college student is really difficult. Maddy has a tenacity to move forward and make life happen for her and her daughter that has been incredible to witness.”

Most who know Smith, Stigter says, aren’t even aware she has a daughter. She has been determined to be like every other student and not let her family situation influence her college experience.

It was Stigter who nominated Smith for the Betty Murnan-Smith Scholarship—given to single parents enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who have at least a 3.0 GPA.

Stigter nominated Smith in 2017, and since then, Smith has received the scholarship for the last three years.

“Without scholarships I never would have been able to come to Butler and receive the education I have received,” Smith says. “To have people that don’t even know you set up scholarships that you’ll eventually benefit from is something I am so grateful for. But, to then have professors looking out for you, and really advocating for you—it is all just so amazing.”

 

An education for everyone

Betty Murnan-Smith ’44 always loved to learn, too.

Born in Indianapolis in 1921, her father died of leukemia when she was 12. Suddenly left to raise Murnan-Smith alone, her mother moved them into the back room of a dried goods store to save money. The two shared a bed, her mother sewed their clothes, and a curtain enclosed their room.

Murnan-Smith rode her bike to school, always eager to get there, says her son, Timothy Smith. A high school English teacher of hers saw her talent as a writer and asked her if she planned to go to college. She said she couldn’t afford college, but her high school teacher told her she still could go, and introduced her to Butler.

“My mom worked her way through school. She had every kind of job you could imagine. She grinded magnesium for airplane parts, she was a soda jerk, an artist model, a Rosie the Riveter,” says Smith, who now lives in Los Angeles. “She was an uncommon woman of her time, one who was fiercely interested in women not following the well-traveled path but taking another option, and daring to do something great with their lives. She got that from her mother.”

Her favorite job, though, was on campus at Butler helping Professor of English Allegra Stewart grade papers. Stewart told Murnan-Smith that she had so much potential, and inspired her to become a professor, too. Murnan-Smith would go on to name her daughter Allegra, after Stewart.

“At a time when most women were becoming domesticated and looking for husbands, my mom went to Butler and had professors who showed her all the potential she had and all the options available to her—that she really could do anything,” Smith says.

Murnan-Smith would go on to teach at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha. Later in her life she established the Betty Murnan-Smith Scholarship for single parents at Butler.

Her children didn’t even know about the scholarship until the end of their mother’s life, but it certainly doesn’t surprise them.

“It resonates with everything we understood about her. She would save pennies and dimes to help those who are trying to fulfill their dreams, despite challenges,” Smith says. “She taught us from a young age the importance of education. We were 12 and she was telling us the unexamined life is not worth living. She wanted to make sure she did her part to provide that for everyone. She actually sounds a lot like Maddy from the bit I have learned about her.”

 

‘A really special day’

Taylor will be at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday, watching her daughter graduate. Arabelle will not. She would be bouncing off the walls during a long ceremony like that, Smith says.

But, the day will be an emotional one.

“I couldn’t be prouder of my daughter,” Taylor says. “I have seen first hand all she has juggled with school, but also raising my granddaughter and being a wonderful mother, and sticking to her original goals and not wavering. She has always been so driven, but to see everything come to the final stages, it will be such a special day.”

After graduation, Smith is hoping to go into event planning, but she is still exploring her options. Whatever she ends up doing, though, she hopes to one day help others like her—sort of like Murnan-Smith.

A Mother’s Promise: Against All Odds, Butler Senior is Ready to Graduate

Arabelle arrived on December 27, 2015. Two weeks later, school started, and Maddy Smith was in class.