This article is part of the Call for Papers: Student Voices series.

In the fifth grade, I begged my mom to homeschool me. I grew up in a small, rural, Virginia town, and the elementary school felt like a condensed version of the town itself. It was claustrophobic, and I constantly felt like everyone knew my business. As a ten-year-old, I was overwhelmed by the judgment and anxiety that the classroom brought me. My friends didn’t feel like my true friends, and I spent more time with the librarian than any of my classmates. I felt disconnected at school, and I desperately wanted to change that.

After struggling through the rest of fifth grade, my mom started to homeschool my sisters and me. In many ways, I thrived. I loved independent work and the fact I could spend as much time as I wanted studying a topic. For things like science and math, we would spend less time, but the goal was always mastery. For history and literature, my sisters and I would spend weeks on topics like Henry the VIII or “Arabian Nights.” We could go in the middle of the school year to meet the many out-of-state friends we made through homeschooling, and take several days-long vacations disguised as field trips to Hershey, PA, and Gatlinburg, TN.

Homeschooling allowed me to explore many creative interests. I created a newspaper and taught myself how to use Word for the first time on our home PC. In anticipation of big conferences and programs put on by our church, I started a jewelry making business to raise funds for me and my sisters. My mom joined a knitting group at our local library, and we would spend every Thursday in their meeting room knitting and then going into the library when they opened to check out books. I learned how to bake and cook. The connection I felt was lacking in the classroom was rekindled throughout my homeschooling journey.

When I was thirteen, we spent most of our year travelling across state lines to help my maternal grandparents when my Grandad was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. I read books, did math lessons, wrote during car rides, at my grandparents’ kitchen table, and anywhere we needed to be that year. It was the year my whole family became wildly grateful for the decision to homeschool.

The plan all along was for me to go back to high school, but when my mom asked me towards the end of my eighth-grade year, I said, “I’d rather not.” Instead, I became even more independent and spent my last two years of high school doing most of my work on my own while working as a nanny three days a week.

Senior year, I started thinking about if I even wanted to go to college. My SAT scores were decent, but I was uncertain if college was for me. My mom pushed me to look at the community college nearby, so I could dip my toe into college classes while still living at home. I had no idea what I wanted to study, only that I would like to become a better writer. I loved books and the worlds you could delve into, and wanted to create a place through writing others could visit. While I was a fairly strong writer, I knew I needed help cultivating my writing skills.

The first semester was an overwhelming vortex of reorienting myself to a classroom setting, navigating a much larger workload, and interacting with my peers and professors. Speaking up in class scared me to my core, and I spent every class session holding my breath, praying that I wouldn’t be called on to answer a question. I felt anxiety every day as I tried to figure out how to be a college student after years of learning independently and at my own personal pace.

I was starting to feel disconnected again.

Towards the end of the semester, an acrylic sign appeared on a library hallway display advertising an opening for a student library assistant. It prompted me to ask about the job at the circulation desk, which felt out of character. Now, I see it as a pivotal life changing moment for who I am today. The woman at the counter gave me a sweet smile and explained how to apply. That very night, I applied. Only a few short weeks later, I was behind that same counter learning how valuable a learning resource the library is.

Working at the library completely changed my learning experience. I learned about the tutoring center, library databases, printing services, and was encouraged to create displays, innovate new systems, and helped arrange the collections to draw more people to them. This little academic library quickly became a safe haven of learning for me, and I was finally connecting with faculty and students in a refreshing way.

While the library was essential to my learning experiences at community college, I still struggled with being in the classroom. I continued to stay silent in my classes, and it was affecting my grades because I lost participation points. Everytime I would even work up the courage to add something to the discussion or answer a professor’s question, I felt like someone would beat me to it.

One of the requirements for my degree was a foreign language, and the first two semesters I barely scraped by in my Spanish classes. By the third one, I was getting Ds on my assignments, and the professor suggested I come to her office hours.

My knock on her door was hesitant, and I half hoped she wouldn’t answer. She greeted me with a wide smile, and by the end of our twenty-minute conversation, she helped me understand the assignment. She also gently suggested if I was still struggling in a couple weeks that it might be a good idea to drop the class and retake the previous class to have a better understanding of the language. It stung. It made me think that higher education was not something I could do—like I was a failure. Retaking and relearning materials felt like such a waste of time and money. I didn’t yet understand that education is something you learn through every class, no matter how wonderful the teacher is, what grade you get, or if you have to retake it.

As I walked out her door that evening, she said, “Sophia, I want you to succeed, so let me help you any way I can.”

After working on my school work on my own for so long, having my professor reach out to me and encourage me to come to office hours, and after she let me know she was on my side, I realized I didn’t have to do this alone. I did retake the class, and with many office hour visits and the addition of a study partner for the rest of my time there, I passed Spanish, and learned how to reach out for help when I was struggling in a course.

With help from my advisors and professors, I decided during my second year at community college that I would transfer after finishing my associates degree. I quickly fell in love with the University of Mary Washington, its small liberal arts atmosphere, and the creative writing department there.

Transferring felt massive to me. I couldn’t believe I had made it to that point, and I was actually going to move to Fredericksburg, Virginia, away from home for the first time. I was going to miss my little library family and community I had created at my community college, but I was determined to find a new one.

Even after three years at my community college and well into my senior year, I still struggled with speaking up in class. At UMW, nearly all of my classes were discussion-based, and my classroom anxiety increased. Everyone in my classes felt so much smarter than me, and adding my thoughts to any discussion felt flat and not meaningful compared to the other students.

I continued to remind myself that my professors were there to help me succeed, and again started taking advantage of their office hours. The library and digital learning center became resources I relied on heavily throughout my two years there. I reached  out to the tutors and librarians for assistance often. I felt so much more comfortable talking one on one with a professor, staff member, or another classmate, and realized that it significantly helped my understanding of the material I was learning.

As a creative writing major, I often had workshops with other students to critique each other’s writings, and professors often split our class into smaller groups. While this was still intimidating for me, as long as I prepared, I thrived and enjoyed this classroom setting. I could connect with my peers and learn a lot about the craft just by discussing the techniques we used in our work.

Literature classes were especially hard when it came to classroom anxiety. It was all reading and long discussions. Every single class session. And there was always so much to read.

During my senior year at UMW, I made a promise to myself to say one thing in every class session of my literature classes.

Speak up at least once.

I did not realize at first, but I had signed up for a speaking intensive Women in Modernism Literature class. It was so heavily discussion based, so a lot of my participation grade depended on making sure I was joining in on the conversation every class. Every time this class met, our professor would have us move our desks to create one large circle, so we could see everybody’s faces and actively pay attention during the hour and a half discussion about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and many, many more.

By the end of the semester, I had spoken up at least once, if not several times, every single class session. When I realized I had accomplished this goal that felt really silly at first, I was so proud of myself. I had done it. I slowly overcame the horrible anxiety I felt adding to class discussions. Speaking up has been an essential part in connecting with my co-workers and bosses today, because I always push myself to add something to the conversation.

I took almost a year break after Mary Washington before applying to graduate school. I knew that would be my next step, but first moved to Richmond, Virginia with the hope of some much needed rest and a new start. I quickly found a new library community in Chesterfield County Public Libraries, and began working there as a library assistant. I never thought I wanted to leave academic libraries, but after only a few weeks on the job, I saw how important the work is in public libraries, too.

Not only did I find a new library community during this year, but I also created some of the most important friendships in my life, and said yes to my now husband of two years. The year of rest quickly became a year of personal growth and wedding planning.

When I started looking at graduate school programs for library and information science, it quickly became apparent I’d need to apply for a fully online program. I had taken online classes in the past, but I’d always been able to balance them out with in-person classes, and had the ability to visit my  professors during their office hours. I knew I could do it, but after growing so much in the classroom, I knew I would miss the in-person discussions and the ability to ask questions as they came into my head.

After some research, I applied and was accepted into Texas Woman’s University’s Library Science program, and even received a scholarship. Their synchronous classes were going to be perfect for my schedule of balancing two jobs and a full-time graduate course load.

August 4th, 2019 in a beautiful garden, I married my wonderful husband, and August 24th, 2019 I started online graduate courses.

I wish I could say it was easy, but that first semester was one of the hardest of my life. Even though my husband and I lived together before we got married, navigating this major life change and starting a master’s degree took time and energy I didn’t know I would need. I am a fairly self-motivated person, but getting into a routine of spending many hours a week for all three online courses I was taking was difficult.

I would go home after getting off from my first job at 2 pm, take a short rest, and do some homework before heading to my second job at 5 pm.

It felt like an endless struggle that semester, but I made it through.

I missed the classroom, but I found routines and practices that worked for me. I spent many hours working on classwork in nearby public libraries, an assortment of coffee shops, friends’ kitchen tables, and curled up in bed. I did not have room for a personal desk, so with the lack of dedicated space in my home, I found little nooks around Richmond that I called my classrooms. In many ways, online graduate school felt like I was homeschooling again, but with more structure.

I loved my library science classes. I loved examining how to help our patrons with technologies, what our ethics should be, how libraries are not neutral, and how we should continue to research and explore the world even after graduating. Every class taught me how to be a librarian, and in tandem with my job in the public library, I was quickly able to share real-world experiences and put my lessons into practice.

A few months ago, I was visiting with a class, and someone questioned the practical application of an online program for library and archival work, which frustrated me. It was impossible for me to go to grad school without working, and the flexibility of an online program made it possible. My professors had open discussions, created online boards for questions, they partnered us up and put us in group projects, they checked their email daily and were always responsive, and they made sure we knew they wanted us to succeed.

I have had the wonderful chance to work in a library as I completed my graduate coursework. While my classes were teaching me the skills I needed to know as a librarian, the librarians at my job modeled what librarianship is in a public library. They encouraged me, asked me about my classes, and made sure to give me many opportunities to learn and teach our patrons.

In July 2021, I was promoted from library assistant to part-time Librarian. As a library assistant, I often had the opportunity to help patrons learn about and access many different informational resources available through the county library, and now much more of my job is dedicated to that.

I am still learning all the time, and am thankful to have so many wonderful mentors in my life. My mom encouraged me to become an independent learner, to connect through learning and creativity. I won’t ever stop learning and speaking up because the college classroom taught me that I belong there despite my anxieties, and that I belong and contribute to teams and conversations on how to make my library a better place for the community it serves.

In December 2021, after completing my last course and portfolio, I will graduate with my Masters of Library and Information Science.

The girl who started at community college after being homeschooled for many years wouldn't believe that she would one day be a Librarian and nearly have a masters degree.