Inspired by her kids, this 2020 #BaylorGrad has finished her degree 36 years after she began
Cindy Bell-Peoples says that children with special needs, in many ways, rebuild a parent from the ground up. As she prepares to graduate this weekend and looks ahead to graduate school — 36 years after initially enrolling at Baylor — her own story demonstrates just that.
Bell-Peoples came to Baylor in 1984 to major in what was then known as fashion merchandising, and the experience was, in many ways, good. She recalls Baylor’s “warm atmosphere,” making friends, a major she enjoyed, and the freedom of being away from home for the first time. But when she looks back at her college self, she also sees a young woman likely struggling from undiagnosed ADHD, lacking maturity in some areas and not quite having the tenacity to grapple with all of the demands of college.
When a job opportunity with Neiman Marcus came along, she took it, leaving Baylor six hours shy of graduation to embark on a long career in merchandise buying for that venerable institution and another Texas department store chain, Foley’s.
Many other highlights came along the way: marriage; the birth of her two sons, James and Collin; and continued career success. Her lack of a degree, however, bothered her. She had briefly attempted to come back and complete her degree in the 1990s, but worries got in the way — What if she hadn’t matured like she wanted to? What if a low GPA in her major was insurmountable?
Like many parents, it was Cindy’s children who changed her: James, now 18, and Collin, now 14. Collin battles autoimmune disease and is on the spectrum with high-functioning autism.
“I had a very specific journey with my kiddos in terms of advocating for their needs, their help, and the programs and educational approach that was going to help them realize their full potential,” Bell-Peoples says. “That made me want to do something more meaningful. In doing a lot of soul searching, I found that social work could be an opportunity for me.”
While sharing her social work dreams with a close friend, that friend shared her own experience as a student at Baylor’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. That conversation, just about a year ago, provided the goal: the chance to get a social work degree, from Baylor, in her own community.
Soon thereafter, she contacted Baylor. Amanda Holland, director of academic advising and enrollment initiatives in Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, heard Bell-People’s story and went to work. Along with Dr. Rochelle Brunson, a family and consumer sciences professor, Holland painstakingly compared Bell-Peoples’ 1988 degree program to the current apparel merchandising major requirements.
To complete her degree, Bell-Peoples needed an internship plus some additional business and Spanish requirements — which she had to complete while working and supporting her two teenage children (and amidst a global pandemic). But she got it all done, and now — 32 years after she left Baylor — her goal of finishing that degree is a reality.
Her next step? An even bigger challenge: a career advocating for children, now that she has been accepted into the master’s in social work program at Baylor’s Houston campus.
“I’m so grateful they took the time to help me and took my request seriously,” Bell-Peoples says. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. But it’s all been very much of a journey. And when you walk a walk, it changes you and provides you with something to give to other people.”
Sic ’em, Cindy Bell-Peoples!