On a two-month road trip in 2021, a celebration for graduating from community college, Alex Swainston and her daughter visited 11 national parks, among other stopovers. In the tradition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, parent and child ventured out West from the Midwest and returned wiser and stronger.

Swainston, an Air Force veteran and single parent, is now pursuing her academic aspirations at U-M in the Program in International and Comparative Studies (PICS), something she hopes will inspire her young daughter, Azalea.

Almost five years old now, Azalea lives on campus with her mom in U-M’s family housing complex at Northwood 5, a community Swainston truly appreciates. Although Swainston acknowledges that it can be hard to keep up with everything sometimes, she continues to strive for more, knowing her daughter is watching. “I have a reason,” she says. “[Azalea] is my reason.”

As a non-traditional student, Swainston is also part of two important student communities on campus: the veteran community and the transfer community. The LSA Transfer Student Center provides a place on campus for veterans and transfers to come together to receive additional staff support and to share resources.  

Support for Veterans and Transfer Students

Veterans like Swainston comprise a very small percentage of students supported by the transfer center, says Michael Hartman, the center’s director, but he also says that they are one of the most important groups on campus. For the 2022-2023 academic year, 20 veterans out of a total of 1,250 students transferred to LSA.

Hartman says the center works individually with prospective student veterans to help clarify a path to LSA. While veterans require much of the same kind of support that other transfer students do, their educational background can be more varied.

“They have often taken courses at various times and different schools as they worked around their service commitment,” Hartman says. “This often presents a confusing landscape for them as they try to figure out how their class credits will transfer and what additional coursework they may need to take before applying.”

Hartman is thankful to have worked with students like Swainston. “[Veterans] bring a perspective to the community developed out of a commitment to service, an understanding of the world, and a self-awareness developed from the responsibilities that they shouldered while serving their country,” he says. 

A Career in the Air Force

Swainston began her military career in 2015 after being told by her recruiter that she would travel the world. That did not end up being the case while on active duty, but she did study at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) in Monterey, California, where she found a calling: learning Middle Eastern languages and collaborating with people from the region. Swainston is now majoring in International Studies with a sub-major in global environmental health, and she plans to complete two minors: one in Middle East studies and the other in sustainability.

“[The DLIFLC] was such an eye-opening time in my life,” says Swainston. “Working with people from the Middle East was fantastic for me. It is part of why I’ve chosen to take classes in Middle Eastern studies here at Michigan.”

Swainston became pregnant while still serving in the Air Force and knew that since she had a little one on the way, she needed to refocus her life around providing a stable upbringing for Azalea. With help from superiors, who were primarily women, Swainston received a maternity discharge and returned home to the Grand Rapids area of Michigan. “I came home to Michigan and stayed with my parents for a couple of years. The first year I decompressed and was a stay-at-home mom.”

It was not long before Swainton realized that she needed to be around people with similar goals. That pull led to the start of her academic career at Northwestern Michigan College, where she excelled. Attending community college was inspirational for Swainston, leading to a decision to transfer to U-M, which she calls a dream school.

Swainston and her daughter Azalea.

At U-M, the Future, and a Continued Passion for Travel

Swainston is not sure what the future will hold, but she is considering master’s programs in sustainability or the environment, like the ones offered by the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. Pursuing graduate school in Northern Europe is another idea, where she believes that Azalea can get an excellent primary education. 

But for now, Swainston says that her professors at U-M have been unanimously supportive. A Persian language class professor even encouraged her to bring Azalea to class. “I would just bring her in,” she says. “People were always so excited to see her.”

Beyond education, a passion for travel has remained core to Swainston’s identity since the military. Swainston is not slowing down and hopes her choices will inspire the rest of Azalea’s life. “My daughter and I have thrived with it just being the two of us,” she says. “I’ve been able to take her around the world. We’ve gone to Spain, Greece, England, Belize, and then we did the two-month road trip across the country.”

With so much accomplished, Swainston is more knowledgeable now than she has ever been. “I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I need as a woman and single mother. It has been a process of getting away from the idea that I need to have that perfect family dynamic,” she says, adding that she believes families do not need two parents to be successful. “I’ve learned that I don’t need to meet those antiquated ideals.”

As a Student Parent

While college can be challenging, Swainston says that sticking to schedules is helpful. “It’s hectic,” says Swainston. “I’m such a procrastinator. But stepping away from that mom guilt, the feeling that I am not doing enough, is important. [Azalea] is not feeling like I don’t love her. Even though I don’t always feel like I’m doing the best, she reminds me that I’m doing okay.”

For single parents considering going back to school, Swainston says, “Yes, it will take up so much of your time, but your kids are going to be okay.”

Although Swainston has overcome great challenges, she is most driven by love. “My child has driven me to succeed,” says Swainston. “She’s my reason to keep pushing forward.”


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Photos courtesy of Alex Swainston.