Rachael Morse recently graduated magna cum laude from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Science degree in geoscience.
Courtesy photo
Rachael Morse recently graduated magna cum laude from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Science degree in geoscience.

Inspired to learn

Nearly two decades after graduating from high school as a teen mother, Rachael Morse earns her college degree, with top honors and big dreams to see the world. And survey it.

Rachael Morse's life is a testimony to hard work, determination, and never, ever giving up despite life challenges that many, even most, would find insurmountable.

The 36-year-old Brattleboro native just graduated magna cum laude from Southern New Hampshire University with a bachelor of science degree in geoscience.

Morse's thirst for knowledge is never-ending: "Statistics, physics, chemistry, coding computers - I love learning about it all," she says.

While graduating from college honors achievement for a student of any age, it conveys even more power for Morse, a longtime hair stylist in the area who manages Main Street Hair Shop at 103 Main St.

In 2006, Morse received her high school diploma from Brattleboro Union High School, with her then-2-year-old daughter, Dominique, looking on in the audience.

At the time, the teen mother told the Brattleboro Reformer, "It's hard to keep up with all your work and get anything done."

But getting things done is exactly what Morse's life has always been about. And it's never been easy.

"I was homeless while in high school," Morse says. "I lived in Morningside Shelter with my daughter."

When she was much younger, she also lived at Kurn Hattin Homes for Children in Westminster, which, according to its website, "serves as a charitable home and school for boys and girls who are affected by tragedy, social or economic hardship."

After high school, Morse attended Keene Beauty Academy and received her cosmetology license.

"I felt I needed to go to school to have a skill that I could rely on while I raised my two children," she says proudly. Dominique is now 19 and in college, and her son, Damien, is a sophomore in high school.

'A beautiful place to learn geology'

Morse, who got started on her college studies in 2020, attending classes remotely during the pandemic, says that her inspiration for further learning came after she lost a client to Covid.

While driving to his services in Barre, Morse noticed the granite quarries that line the road to the cemetery.

"I'm so fascinated with the Earth," she says. "I found myself wondering, 'How do we know where to find the rocks we quarry in Vermont?'"

That question turned out to be the spark that led her to enroll in college.

"I realize that getting a science degree is a long way from cutting hair," she says. "I never thought I'd be into science. But in thinking about it, all my favorite teachers in high school were science teachers."

Geoscience, explains Morse, encompasses what previous generations of students knew.

The field "includes so much more than rocks and volcanoes," she says. "It studies the processes that form and shape the Earth's surface."

The study also includes the natural resources we use and how water and ecosystems are interconnected.

Some of her friends didn't get it: "They kept asking me, 'Mines in Vermont? How are you going to study that?'" she says.

"They didn't realize that we have so many mines in Vermont, including copper mines," Morse adds. "Most people don't realize that. And with climate change, flooding, and changes in our topography, this is the best time to be in this field."

Geoscience, she says, "is more important than ever in Vermont. It has to do with cartography and of mitigation of hazards like contamination of water sites. This field has grown by 30% in our state."

"Did you know that we have over 900 mines in Vermont?" she says. "It's such a beautiful place to learn geology."

Overcoming challenges

Getting her college degree was no easier than getting her high school diploma, though the challenges were different, Morse says.

"My children are both older now, but my living situations haven't always been easy," she says.

"During college, I moved to a new apartment, which turned out to be a disaster," she adds. "I didn't know when I moved in that I was in the same building as the town's worst drug dealer. I suffered through four drug raids while I was going through college."

Morse lost her job when the salon where she was working was sold. She ended up with no heat or hot water, and she found herself in a new relationship that ended with her becoming a survivor of domestic abuse.

"It's been an interesting life, that's for sure," she says with a rueful chuckle.

Despite formidable circumstances, she's still getting things done.

"I'm a very determined person," she says. "I don't get distracted with the difficulties of life."

She maintained a 3.8 grade point average and graduated with high honors. She was a member of the National Society for Leadership and Success, an organization that promotes support and opportunties on college campuses for future leaders.

And, through her studies and life challenges, Morse continued to cut hair.

"My cosmetology license is still my income, and the people I serve are my family," she says. "Cutting hair continues to be the way I support myself while I plan my next move."

And, she says, "my clients are so important to me."

"They have supported me with hope and encouragement," she says. "I won't leave them."

Ready to get outside

Despite her staying put for now, Morse is making long-term plans for her next big achievement.

"I'd like to be a field geologist and land surveyor," she says. "My first degree is a good step in the right direction."

That direction will lead to her taking more classes - this time, from the University of Maine - and earning a graduate certificate in surveying engineering technology. By the time she's 38 years old, she plans to take the state board test to become a surveyor.

Morse notes that recent college graduates are often looking for jobs where they can work remotely from a computer.

She feels differently.

"It's not yet time to change jobs," she says. "If I were to take a job in geoscience now, I'd be stuck behind a computer. I need to move my body. I love my job, but a few years from now, I'll be ready to get outside and move through the forests," she says, excitement rising in her voice as she thinks about her future.

"The average age of land surveyors in Vermont is 59. It's getting to be a lost art. I already have clients who tell me that they are having difficulty finding someone to do the work," she notes.

And travel is in her future as well, she says.

"My work station on Main Street is full of maps. I ask each client to put a pin on the map for where they are from, and I ask them about that area of the USA. I have another map of the world that one can scratch off each country. Other clients scratch off the country where they are from, and I have them tell me what it is like there."

She also has a sand collection.

"When one of my clients is going to travel, I ask them to bring me back some sand from where they are visiting. I mark each container and learn about where the sand is from," she says.

"It's a great way to learn about the world," Morse says cheerily. "It gives me a giant bucket list to work on." Eventually, she'll start her new career to fund that giant list, she notes.

"I have jars and jars of sand," she says.

This News item by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

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