Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories highlighting Concordia's May 2020 graduates.


Elizabeth Brown is proof that it’s never too late to graduate.

More than 20 years after she began her undergraduate pursuit at Concordia University Wisconsin, the Milwaukee native and mother of two has finished what she started. Brown, who has earned her bachelor’s degree in theology, is one of the 849 candidates who make up Concordia’s spring 2020 class of graduates.

Her sons, along with her own ambition, are largely to thank for it. At 13 and 16 years old, Brown’s boys are nearing their own college exploration period, and Brown, the first in her family to earn a degree, hopes Concordia will be on their list.

“My boys needed to see that college is possible, even if you had all the obstacles that I had,” she said. “And I hope Concordia is among their choices because I need my children to continue their relationship with God—that is fundamental for all people—and I know that at Concordia they’ll receive the same encouragement, kindness, and generosity that I have received.”

A tough start

Brown’s Concordia journey started similarly to that of numerous other undergraduates. Following her graduation from Wisconsin Lutheran High School in 1998, Brown set out to obtain her bachelor’s degree in psychology at CUW, but quickly realized she was out of her depth.

“I wasn’t emotionally or mentally prepared for college,” Brown said. “I graduated from high school and went to Concordia where I didn’t know anyone except for one other person. It was just a lot of independence all at once and I did not yet have the maturity to handle it.”

An honor roll student throughout high school, Brown’s floundering began to show in her grades. By the end of her first semester, she was put on academic probation. Adding to her roadblocks to success, her mother was hospitalized the following semester and she began dating someone who, in hindsight, was a less-than-ideal role model. By the end of the year, Brown had landed herself in some trouble with campus safety. Mortified, she dropped out of Concordia.

Impactful care and support

Despite her rather tumultuous first year at Concordia, Brown said the university made a lasting, favorable impact on her.

First-generation college graduate Elizabeth Brown is proud to show her teenage sons – Orion, left, and Caelum, right – that college is possible for them too.

When Brown’s grades began to slip she was put on Concordia’s STAR program, designed to provide intervention and extra support to students who have fallen behind academically. Concordia’s support systems for students who are at-risk academically have received global accolades.

As part of the STAR program, students were invited to University President Rev. Patrick Ferry’s home to receive encouragement. To this day, Brown remembers Ferry’s kindness to her. She shared as much in an April 16, 2020 email she penned to President Ferry.

“We went to your home and met your family,” Brown wrote. “It sticks out because it was the first time I sampled apple cider, which, looking back, is strange because I love all things apple. The best part of that experience was your warmth and the genuine, generous encouragement that was offered, not only academically but in life and in our spirituality. Thank you for that lasting impression which has gotten me through many tough times in life.”

Resuming the pursuit

In 2017, after observing an adult college learner share her story at a high school function for Brown’s son, Brown felt compelled to revisit her goal of achieving a college degree.

Again, she found Concordia and enrolled this time in CUW’s theology undergraduate program.

Brown, who works in the church office at Mount Lebanon Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, says she’s not looking to leave her current position once she graduates. In fact, the exact opposite. She’s hoping to make an even bigger impact for the Lord right where she’s at.

“I wanted to deepen my relationship with God and I wanted to be able to share the Lord in the most effective way possible with everyone else,” Brown said. “And I found that at Concordia. The theology instruction there is so far advanced beyond anything else you can find in this area and even throughout the nation. Concordia offers something that is deeper, that is more tangible, that tethers you to the Lord.”

It would be her joy to see her sons experience this substantive faith instruction as well. She’s certainly thankful for the impact it’s had throughout her life.

“This one heart (Concordia) was not valued by me in my youth, yet now is all I desire,” Brown wrote to President Ferry. “To be tied to all those who have seen me at my worst and helped on the journey from 2017 to present makes my heart smile. My children will no longer be first-generation black graduates. They can look to me and know that anything is possible, even if you wait 20 years to make things right.”

Brown and her 2020 classmates will be honored at a virtual degree conferral ceremony on Saturday, May 16. They will be celebrated in person at the December commencement celebration. These changes are in response to the Coronavirus. To learn more about Concordia’s response, click here.

— Kali Thiel is director of university communications for Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. She may be reached at kali.thiel@cuw.edu or 262-243-2149.

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