Alishia Agee-Cooper learned her most important lesson outside the classroom. “There were many moments in my life when I could have failed but the people who supported me were there, so I didn’t,” said Agee-Cooper.
In mid-June, Agee-Cooper will walk across the stage at the 2017 UW Tacoma Commencement with a master’s degree in social work. “I feel like a superstar,” she said. “I feel like I can do anything and I don’t want to be done now, I want to get my Ph.D.”
Not long ago Agee-Cooper had a very different outlook. “I’ve made some bad choices in my life and I never thought I could be where I am today,” she said. The now-32-year-old says self-doubt and questions of identity kept her from pursuing higher education.
Agee-Cooper’s perspective changed seven years ago with the birth of her son. “I wanted more,” she said. “My son, he motivated me to want to be financially stable. I grew up in a middle class home and I wanted to be able to provide that for him.”
The journey from then to now proved difficult but Agee-Cooper found a way. She remembers taking daily bus trips from the Hilltop neighborhood to Pierce College and fretting about getting back on time to relieve her childcare provider. In this instance and in others, Agee-Cooper found support. “My son’s provider stepped in and drove him to and from my house so I wouldn’t have to worry about it,” she said.
Community is important to Agee-Cooper and is one reason why she came to UW Tacoma from Pierce to complete her undergraduate work. “This place just felt like home, it felt like somewhere I could belong,” she said.
Agee-Cooper chose a school but she says social work chose her. “People saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself and they helped open doors that would have remained closed because I would have been too afraid to knock,” she said. “Now I feel it’s my turn to give back.”
Agee-Cooper is already putting her degree to use. She interned and now works for the Children’s Administration Division of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. “I really want to help reimagine the way child welfare works today,” she said. “I can see a future where we partner with parents in a more holistic approach to help the family thrive.”
At some point in the future Agee-Cooper sees herself running for elected office. She wants to be an advocate for children and for the marginalized. “I think we tend to write off communities or we write off people based on one incident instead of looking at the big picture to see what led to that incident,” she said.
This view reflects Agee-Cooper’s history, her past mistakes and shortcomings. She benefited from a helpful mother and professors who encouraged her to keep going when she thought she didn’t belong. “I thought I was a fraud,” she said. “I had several professors tell me that I belong, that it’s normal to feel this way.”
Agee-Cooper is the first in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree (in 2015 from UW Tacoma, majoring in social welfare) and is now the first to earn a master’s. She recently added to her growing list of accomplishments. Agee-Cooper is one of eight UW Tacoma students inducted into this year’s Husky 100. “I felt so honored to be recognized,” she said. “My field instructor, Kelly Drake, she sent me an email that said ‘you’re one-fifth of one percent, because out of 54,000 students, you’re a 100.’” Drake’s message meant a lot to Agee-Cooper, so much so that she had it tattooed on her wrist.
Alishia Agee-Cooper learned her most important lesson outside the classroom. The lesson—that it takes a village—is something she wants others to understand. “Just call me,” she says. “I know it sounds weird but I want to help in any way I can.”