Cap and gown donation program helps dozens of UNT graduates celebrate their accomplishments

Linda Farrell and her daughters

UNT freshman. Dropout. Single mother. Survivor. Transfer student. First-generation college graduate. The road to commencement is never easy, but for Linda Farrell (right), the detours, pit stops and potholes along the way will make the final destination that much sweeter.

Farrell’s journey started on the other side of the Pacific. Her father served in the U.S. Army, stationed on the 38th parallel – the border between North and South Korea – when he met Farrell’s mother.

The couple had a son before Farrell’s mother immigrated to the U.S. from Korea while they were expecting their second child. Two months after Farrell was born, her father passed away from a heart attack due to an enlarged heart, leaving Farrell and her brother to be raised by a single immigrant mother in a new country.

While raising her children in Keller,  Farrell’s mom provided cleaning services for a living and Farrell and her brother would often help clean buildings so their mother could take on more business.

After graduating from high school in 2005, Farrell decided to enroll as a freshman at UNT, but she worried that her academic commitment would make it difficult for her to continue helping her mother maintain her workload. Farrell’s concerns were compounded exponentially when her brother went to prison that year.

It all became too much for Farrell to handle on her own, so she dropped out. Over the next seven years Farrell met someone, fell in love and had two daughters, but before long the relationship turned toxic and abusive. With the support of friends and family, Farrell was able to end the relationship and decided it was time to finish her degree so she could set a positive example for her girls.

“I know it sounds so cliché, but I wanted to show my daughters that they could do it without any man supporting them,” says Farrell. “I just wanted to show them that they could make it in life.”

Farrell earned her associate’s degree from Tarrant County College while she was living in a women’s shelter before transferring back to UNT in 2015, but she says she still wasn’t in the right mindset to complete her degree until the support of one of her professors helped get her on the right track.

Dr. Nicole Smith actually helped me a lot with coping with coming back to UNT,” says Farrell. “When I transferred I was also coping with trying to transition from being a victim to being a survivor, then my mom was diagnosed with stage three cancer and I was like, ‘Maybe this just is not in the cards for me.’

“But she believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and that helped me get through college. There were times when I couldn’t afford a babysitter and she let me bring my kids to class. She just left an indelible mark on my life.”

With the support of Dr. Smith and other UNT resources like the Writing Center, Counseling Services and Survivor Advocates, Farrell will graduate in December with a major in English and a minor in psychology and as a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society for finishing in the top 10% of her class. But when it came time to decide if she would participate in the commencement ceremony, she didn’t know if she’d be able to afford a cap and gown.

“As a parent, you sometimes feel guilty spending money on yourself when you could or may need to spend that money on your kids, especially as a single parent,” says Farrell.

Through some serendipitous timing, the same day Farrell was worrying about whether or not she could afford to participate in commencement she received on email from Dean of Students/Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Moe McGuinness telling her about UNT’s new Mean Green Gowns for Grads program.

The program launched in the Fall of 2018 after Dean of Students staff members were made aware of several graduates who didn’t get to walk the stage the previous spring because they couldn’t afford the cost of a cap and gown.

“We wanted to find a way to provide this program so that our students who worked so hard to obtain a degree could celebrate their achievements,” says McGuinness.

The program received a donation of 50 caps and gowns from Jostens, as well as several from alumni and more than 80 undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. Fall 2018 graduates have signed up for the program so far. McGuinness says they’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people in need of the program, but even more so by the generous donations of those who support it.

Linda Farrell's mother and daughters

“This program helps students who are historically underrepresented; low-income, DACA, first-generation college students who can’t afford the cap and gown,” says McGuinness. “We know these students have had to overcome many obstacles to stay in school and graduate – they’re so resilient. UNT prides itself on being a community that cares for all of our students. This is just one way to show that we care about them all the way through graduation and beyond.”

In addition to the regalia, the Dean of Students office is offering participants a free photo session on campus so they can also have graduation pictures to commemorate their accomplishments. McGuinness says they plan to ask all Fall 2018 graduates if they’d be willing to donate their regalia to the Mean Green Gowns for Grads program so they can help even more students like Farrell realize their dreams of walking across the stage to receive their college degrees next spring.

Farrell’s mother (right) is now cancer-free and will be sitting with her two granddaughters in the UNT Coliseum when Farrell walks across the stage in her cap and gown this December. But that won’t be the last stop in Farrell’s academic career – she’s in the process of applying to a doctoral psychology program at Rutgers University. Farrell says she chose Rutgers because it’s Dr. Smith’s alma mater and she hopes to follow in her footsteps to become a professor who makes a difference in the lives of struggling students. But until then, she has advice for students who may be trying to work through some of the same struggles she faced.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I think a lot of us are so prideful and embarrassed, but there’s nothing to be embarrassed about trauma, let’s end the stigma,” says Farrell. “A lot of people don’t realize when they go to a large university like UNT that there is help for survivors. I didn’t do it by myself, there’s no way I could have.”