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Display of determination: Graduate faced obstacles on way to degree

Marlynn Radford-Brown ASU graduate
May 15, 2014

Marlynn Radford-Brown says she is “almost in a state of disbelief” about her life at the moment.

She is graduating from Arizona State University with a degree in construction management. She is interviewing for jobs with construction companies around the country, and she’s taking a closer look at the law schools to which she has been accepted.

A little more than five years ago, she was a single parent with a second child on the way when she was laid off from her job, and her mother had recently passed away.

“I was trying to deal with all of that and a lot of other stuff in my personal life. I was in shock,” she recalls.

“I knew I had a choice to make. I could have a pity party or I could use my frustration to push myself out of my situation,” she says.

Higher education delayed

Years earlier, Radford-Brown had detoured from potential career paths that her schooling had prepared her for.

Growing up in Philadelphia, she attended an elementary school known for its advanced academics, and followed up by graduating from a similarly high-caliber secondary school – the George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science.

She comes from a large extended clan “with a lot of professionals.” There are doctors, lawyers, politicians and others in positions of leadership and influence. Radford-Brown says she started to go to college and follow the family tradition but she kept finding relatively good-paying full-time jobs, and the steady money lured her away from higher education.

In Philadelphia and in Arizona – where she had moved to be closer to her mother, who had retired in the Phoenix area – she performed production and account management services in advertising and marketing for several companies for almost 15 years.

But after her layoff in the middle of an economic recession, the outlook for finding well-paid similar positions was bleak. She saw more promising long-term prospects in pursuing a career in which she could build on her earlier training in technology and engineering: construction.

Changing course

Going to college would mean living in meager circumstances while raising two young sons. “I told myself if I was going to sacrifice for this, I was going to give it my best,” she says.

Radford-Brown has made good on her commitment. Her best has turned out to be extraordinary.

She enrolled at Mesa Community College (MCC) with her eye on fulfilling requirements that would gain her entry into ASU. While taking full course loads, she worked daytime hours as a teacher’s office assistant and at night for a state agency, assisting people living with mental disabilities to move from institutional care back into society.

“I carried my book bag with me constantly, and studied whenever I could find the time day or night,” she says.

In less than two years, she earned an associate’s degree in construction management from MCC and was admitted to ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College, and enrolled in the Del E. Webb School of Construction, a part of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Full immersion in school

Soon after arriving at ASU, she began an internship with the Arizona Department of Transportation that she worked for two years – with a three-month hiatus to do a summer internship with the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

Radford-Brown’s academic performance earned her scholarship support through the Fulton Schools of Engineering and Barrett, The Honors College, as well as scholarships from the Associated General Contractors Foundation, the Ames Memorial Foundation, the Sandra L. Weber Memorial Scholar and Wellsgate International Distinguished Scholar programs and the Leadership Society of America.

While taking classes and working internships, she also was a member of Sigma Lambda Chi, the international construction honors society, ASU’s Advancing Women in Construction mentorship program, the student chapter of the American Concrete Institute, and served on the student advisory board for the Del E. Webb School.

She accomplished it all “by basically giving up sleep,” she says.

Support from her peers

She also gives a lot of credit to professors and fellow students.

“The Del E. Webb School has such a team-oriented, community atmosphere. Everyone supports each other,” Radford-Brown says.

“I had times when I thought I was going to lose my mind from lack of sleep or not having enough time to study, or times that I doubted the quality of my work,” she explains. “But the faculty and other students kept me going and coming back to school every day. I don’t think would have survived without them.”

Her studies focused on heavy/civil construction management. The field typically involves big-budget, long-term public infrastructure projects such as bridges, tunnels, highways and similar projects requiring major excavation and other earthwork.

Radford-Brown spent time during the weeks before graduation talking to some “very big” construction companies about employment. But her sights are also set on where she sees herself beyond the first job in the industry.

Big plans for the future

She hopes to able to earn a law degree while working in construction management. She’s interested in litigation related to the construction and engineering industries, as well as contract law and related aspects of the fields.

“It may take me four or more years to get a law degree while working in construction, but I really want to accomplish something on the legal and business side of the industry,” she says.

Plans also include continuing to raise her sons, 9-year-old Quantum and 5-year-old Avatar. “I gave my sons powerful names so they would have something bold and challenging to live up to,” she explains.

But maybe all they will need for an example of persistence and determination to live up to is their mother.