By Max Esterhuizen, M.S. ’15
From first-generation student to faculty mentor
Determination and hard work led alumna Aysha Bodenhamer ’10 on her academic journey, which took her from rural North Carolina to Radford before returning to her home state to earn a Ph.D. and returning to Radford University as an assistant professor.
Through the inspiration of her high school softball coach and Radford alumna Myra Combs ’99 — who was adamant that Bodenhamer continue her studies — Bodenhamer visited Radford as a high schooler and fell in love with the campus and the surrounding area.
“I just love the mountains,” she said. “I felt comfortable. I love that the New River was right there along campus, and everybody was pleasant and friendly. It just felt like home.”
But it took that determination and hard work to succeed as a first-generation student. While her parents were supportive, they didn’t necessarily understand the college process.
“[First-generation] students don’t have that privilege of their parents saying, ‘Oh, you’re really good at this,” she said. ‘Maybe you should check out these programs.’ It is not a bad thing — it just is what it is. I work extremely hard and I persevere. That is what has been ingrained in me from my family and from my Appalachian roots — to persist and never give up.”
While her parents didn’t understand the process, they supported Bodenhamer through her college experience. “I do feel very privileged,” she said. “My dad told me that he would help me finance college for four years — if I did well and if I didn’t drop out. He was very strict about that. His support was huge. My mom also offered a lot of social and financial support.”
At Radford, Bodenhamer was given opportunities to do graduate-level research as an undergraduate student — opportunities that Bodenhamer said enabled her to pursue her Ph.D. Paula Brush, former chair of the Sociology Department, was instrumental in Bodenhamer’s success as a student. “She was by far one of the best professors I’ve had in my entire life,” she said.
Theresa Burriss, who serves as chair of Appalachian Studies and director of the Appalachian Regional and Rural Center, was also instrumental as she took a group of students to see firsthand the effects of mountaintop removal in West Virginia. “That was really the beginning of my graduate career,” Bodenhamer said. “The issues with coal, non-renewable resources and energy and how we take that for granted as a society.”
That is what has been ingrained in me from my family and from my Appalachian roots — to persist and never give up.
Near the conclusion of Bodenhamer’s time at Radford, she was encouraged by her mentors to continue her education, saying that Jeanne Mekolichick, now assistant provost of academic programs, and Brush told her that “it was what she was meant to do.”
Bodenhamer added that if she didn’t have the encouragement of her mentors, she wouldn’t have attended graduate school. “I wouldn’t have even gone to college in the first place and I definitely wouldn’t have gotten a Ph.D.,” she said. “I didn’t think it was in my future plans. I didn’t think I was capable of doing these things.”
North Carolina State University offered Bodenhamer a full scholarship to attend graduate school, where she studied two concentrations that interested her — global change and development and rural sociology.
Bodenhamer wanted to use her graduate degree to become a college professor. As she was completing her studies, she began to look for employment.
“As I was approaching the job market, I realized that my interests were in really niche areas,” she said. “I wanted to be somewhere in the Appalachian region where people would appreciate this research. It had always been my dream to come back to Radford University because I had such a positive experience here and I loved the atmosphere. I could knock on a professor’s door at any time and have a conversation with them — it was always welcomed. I didn’t see that at other institutions.”
Three open positions appeared in the Sociology Department at Radford University at the exact time Bodenhamer began looking for a job. “I was thrilled,” she said. “But I was still nervous about the possibility of coming back to Radford. I’d be coming back as an equal colleague, but Radford is the place for me.”
“I’m hoping that as I get grounded in this job, I can be a mentor to students just like my mentors were for me,” Bodenhamer continued. “I feel very privileged to be here. I feel like I’m a product of great mentors.”