by Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager Northwest Missouri State University
Megan Hamilton, like generations of Northwest Missouri State University students before her, nurtured a dream of becoming a teacher and persisted through challenges to earn advanced degrees. But not many – if any – can say they participated in the University commencement ceremony while nine months pregnant and experiencing labor contractions.
That’s exactly what Hamilton did Friday night, as Northwest honored its spring master’s degree and education specialist degree candidates at Bearcat Arena.
“I believe the best things in life are worth fighting for, and I cannot thank those around me enough for the love, encouragement and support as I’ve worked through this stage of life,” Hamilton said. “I feel so honored to hold a degree from the graduate reading program at Northwest.”
Megan is the daughter of Scott and Angela Westhoff of Memphis and is a graduate of Scotland County R-I High School. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Northwest in 2013 in elementary education. She completed her student teaching at Eugene Field Elementary School in Maryville and was hired to teach there that fall.
Hamilton, then with a 1-year-old daughter, returned to Northwest in the fall of 2013 to begin working on her master’s degree in education with a reading emphasis. During the next four years, Hamilton, now a kindergarten teacher at Eugene Field, has continued teaching while raising a family with her husband.
She was conscientious throughout her studies about taking breaks from her coursework to care for her family and uphold her teaching responsibilities. In 2014, Hamilton submitted her last graduate assignment for the summer trimester just 12 hours before going into labor with her second child.
“Teaching is my passion, and earning a higher degree in reading education to help me better my practice as an educator has been a dream of mine since moving to Maryville and beginning my higher ed journey in 2009,” Hamilton said. “In that time though, beginning my family and becoming a mother has also become my greatest passion and calling in life. It has been very important to me to be able to balance raising my family, fulfilling my role as a full-time educator and also working toward this degree.”
Last fall, Hamilton returned to Northwest full-time to finish her graduate studies and began her fourth year of teaching at Eugene Field. One week after resuming her graduate coursework, Hamilton and her husband learned they were expecting their third child, and she became more determined than ever to complete her degree.
“When we realized that graduation day and our ‘guess date’ for when our baby would arrive were within days of each other, I put it out of my mind and we told ourselves that whatever would be would be, and we remained optimistic that it would all work out,” Hamilton said.
“But as the week of graduation approached and I finished up my last assignments and graduate requirements, it really began weighing on my heart how hard I had worked to earn this prestigious accolade and how badly I wanted to be able to take part in the commencement ceremonies, for myself and for my family. I also knew that the baby could arrive any day and that I needed to be accepting of whatever happened, even if it meant missing the ceremony.”
On Friday – graduation day – Hamilton woke around 4:45 a.m. with light contractions, but she remained optimistic and determined to participate in the ceremony. It was Hamilton’s first day of maternity leave from Eugene Field, and she went about her day, resting in between chores and picking up her cap and gown.
That evening, Hamilton’s contractions became stronger. She and her husband sent their children to a grandparent’s home while they attended the ceremony. They had planned for a homebirth and live close to campus, so Hamilton was comfortable knowing they would be close by.
“I knew that as soon as I felt the need to come home it would only take a few minutes,” she said. “Walking into the rec center with my cap and gown, I continued to have contractions, but they were manageable and I was able to distract myself with conversations with familiar faces and the excitement of the ceremony.”
As the ceremony began, Hamilton took a second row aisle seat with graduates on the Bearcat Arena floor. During his opening remarks, Northwest President Dr. John Jasinski called Hamilton out, announcing her situation to the Bearcat Arena crowd.
“I was actually meditating on a contraction and hadn’t been listening to what he was saying,” Hamilton said. “It was only when he said my name that I looked up and was brought out of my meditation. After standing up and sitting back down my heart rate increased, and I honestly became worried that this excitement and energy would progress my labor faster and I began to sweat a little bit.”
With the help of a friend sitting beside her, Hamilton managed to remain calm.
“I felt confident in my abilities to manage my contractions and was truly just so happy to be sitting in my own graduation ceremony, hood on my arm, with my family in the crowd,” she said. “I felt like I was on a high and that I was in complete control.”
As the graduates were invited to rise and begin processing toward the stage, Hamilton said, she had a contraction that was significantly stronger than the previous ones and knew she would need to leave quickly. Her friend offered to take her robe and hood after they crossed the stage.
“As soon as I took my picture with Dr. J, he hugged me and wished me luck, and I said to him ‘OK, I’m in a window here, I have to go,’ meaning it would be only a matter of seconds before the next contraction. We had a good laugh and I left the stage.”
Hamilton’s husband, who had kept his eyes on her from the arena’s bleachers, knew she was ready to leave. He met her on the other side of the stage and Hamilton’s father drove the couple to their home.
They arrived at the home shortly after 8:30 Friday night, and Hatcher James was born at 9:32 p.m., weighing in at 8 pounds, 10 ounces and 20 1/4 inches long.
Hamilton concedes her journey to earn her degrees was not an easy one and says she is grateful for the support she has received from the Northwest and Maryville communities.
“My advisers, teachers and professors have been especially supportive as I’ve had a unique story, attending classes and completing coursework, much of which during two different pregnancies and working full-time as a teacher,” Hamilton said. “I have always felt that everyone has been on my team, cheering me on and helping me to meet my goals.”