Graduate Spotlight ’22: Samantha Donley

Samantha Donley graduated in 2022 with a degree in Social Work.
The option to attend classes remotely was a huge help to Samantha Donley as she raised her infant son.

Samantha Donley

  • Town: Wilton
  • Major: Social Work

It’s no critique to say that Samantha Donley has been known to occasionally display infantile behavior in class. If anything, such a comment is only further proof of the dedication and seriousness that she applied to her studies in Social Work.

The infant in question is her son. Three months after he was born, Donley resumed her college education following a hiatus of several years. She made her return at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2021. 

With public gatherings limited to prevent the virus from spreading, the University of Southern Maine offered classes remotely. Donley participated through Zoom without leaving her son’s side at their home in Wilton.

“We hung out and I had a little bouncy seat,” Donley said. “Everything was online which was actually very great for my situation. I could bounce him in his little floor swing with my foot and pay attention to my online classes.”

Becoming a mother is one of several ways that Donley changed and grew since beginning her odyssey through higher education in 2012. She originally planned to major in Political Science, then switched to English. Health issues arose in 2014, forcing her to step back from her studies.

Donley took a job as a medical scribe and got involved in community-based projects. The people she met through those experiences gave her a new outlook on her career goals. When she returned college in 2017, she changed her major to Social Work.

“I have a deepened understanding of living life because I’ve had more time to live it,” Donley said. “I think that’s very important for Social Work to understand the level that the world is at, how people in our community are, how everyone’s doing at this time. I’ve had time to live in it and I feel like it’s definitely helped me develop who I am.”

Her second stint at USM lasted a year until health issues again caused her to leave. The next few years were spent on the road with extended stops in Iowa and Colorado. The prospect of starting a family brought Donley home to Maine in 2020. During her recovery from giving birth, she reconnected with her academic advisor to plan a final push for her degree.

“I’ve had so many good professors because I’ve taken so many classes in so many different areas from Geology to Physics and all over the place just for fun,” Donley said. “I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a lot of the faculty and I would say they are what make USM. That’s why I went back to USM.”

As much as she gained by her unorthodox path through college, Donley would like to spare other students some of those difficulties. She channeled that desire into her field work with the Maine People’s Alliance, which advocates for progressive social change. Her efforts resulted in the formation of Maine Student Action. The new advocacy organization fights for the issues that matter to students within the education system and beyond. 

Donley won’t stop being a student herself when she receives here bachelor’s degree at Commencement on Saturday, May 7. A master’s degree in Social Work is her next goal. Her studies will coincide with a new job in the Child Protective Services division of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Like her work with students, Donley can draw on personal experience in family matters. She also recognizes the limits of her experience in working with people whose economic status, ethnicity, religion, and gender identity are different from her own.

“You don’t just call yourself an advocate. You are asked to be an advocate,” Donley said. “I would want someone to take away the fact that I am here if you need me to be here for you. But you don’t need my voice to be heard, and I will help you get your voice heard.”

If help isn’t available within the system, Donley intends to change the system by playing a role in policy discussions. She knows the wheels of government can turn slowly, but as Donley’s college journey has shown, persistence is one of her strong suits.