BiblioBios: Undergraduate Engagement Librarian brings non-traditional student experience to new role at KU Libraries
Sarah McCall’s journey to college success began early one morning as she finished her night shift at the garage door factory where she worked full-time, supporting her family. In the employee restroom, she changed out of her dusty work clothes into a clean outfit and headed to an 8 a.m. English composition class, determined to prove to herself that she could pass. She didn’t just pass, she got an A, the beginning of a 15-year march towards a college degree. That persistent effort, combined with a wealth of lived experience along the way, combines in her role as KU Libraries Undergraduate Engagement Librarian.
McCall, who joined the libraries in April 2023, supports undergraduate students through programming, library instruction, and one-one-one research consultations with the goal of increasing student support and retention. These priorities are near to McCall's heart -- prior to embarking on her own pathway to success as a non-traditional student, she experienced a rocky introduction to college life just after high school in her hometown of Emporia, Kan.
“Growing up, we did not have a lot of money and there was quite a bit of struggle throughout,” said McCall, noting there were times her family didn’t have a car or reliable utilities. “But in the midst of what felt like constant stress about money and bad luck, my parents did everything they could to support my love of reading. We walked to the public library several times a week and they would let me pick out two books a month to buy.”
McCall sought to find her footing at two different higher learning institutions directly after high school graduation, with disappointing results.
“I first went to Emporia State University but almost immediately I flunked out, then I went to a community college and also flamed out there,” McCall said. “My parents were incredibly loving, but we just didn’t have the connections and institutional knowledge that can really support students in navigating college. I didn’t know that I could ask for help, and I didn’t want to be judged for needing help. I felt that asking for help is embarrassing, there’s shame in that. I had internalized this idea of having to do everything for myself and keeping my struggles private, when the reality is that it takes community to graduate a student. It’s exhausting trying to fit yourself into places where all signs seem to be saying that you just don’t belong.”
Instead of continuing to pursue college, McCall moved to Lawrence and began working full time. She worked third shift because it paid an extra 50 cents an hour and often worked six days a week. Though she was helping her family economically and making positive connections with coworkers, she felt she was missing experiences and opportunities she wanted.
“I was 21 years old and it seemed like everyone else I knew my age was in school and just living very, very different lives,” McCall said. “Yet there was education and learning in the factory work I did, learning how to be a good worker, how to show up, and how to show up for the people you’re working with.”
During one of her night shifts, she and a coworker realized they shared a common interest.
“We discovered we both loved to read over a cigarette break in the parking lot,” McCall recalled. “And I confessed that I’d like to be a writer. The next day my coworker brought me a beat-up copy of a book, I can’t remember if it was “Grapes of Wrath” first or “Slapstick” by Kurt Vonnegut, but he said, ‘Read this.’”
McCall and her coworker began discussing the books during breaks. More books and discussions about writing followed.
“At a certain point I wasn’t very happy that I had flunked out of college, and I just wanted to see, to see if I could pass Comp I,” McCall said. “As someone who really likes reading and writing it was really important to me to conquer this one class.”
McCall remembers her coworkers literally cheering her on as she went off to attend that first class at Johnson County Community College. After her success with the class, McCall enrolled in another, proceeding one or two classes at a time as she continued to work 40 hours a week at the factory and later, other jobs.
“Sometimes you hear stories about people who are non-traditional students and maybe it took them a long time to get to college but once they got there, boom, they took off. That was not my story at all,” McCall said. “It was a very, very slow progression. There were lots of starts and stops, and there were lots of life experiences that happened in between: supporting my family, elder care, a lot of life events.”
But McCall kept going, and several years and classes later, she transferred her junior college credits to KU, spending the next 10 years incrementally advancing toward a degree and working full-time.
“I realized KU and college in general is full of people who want to help you and want you to succeed,” she said. “Finding those people is critical.”
Her time at KU included a study abroad trip to Costa Rica as one of her final classes, an experience she called “transformative.”
“It was life changing,” McCall said. “When I was a kid, going to Topeka was a big deal. Going out of the country for the first time, it opened up the world.”
Fifteen years after completing that first Comp I course, and at the age of 36, McCall walked down the hill, earning her bachelor’s degree in English from KU. After graduating, McCall worked on campus in the Office of Multicultural Affairs and at the School of Social Welfare.
“I’ve spent the majority of my adult life so far without a degree and being on the other side of that I really see the opportunities and what a degree opens up for you,” McCall said. “That’s how I knew I wanted to work within higher education and support students who were maybe like me. Or anyone who faces challenges. I wanted to be there as a support and as someone who understands.”
McCall noted that while she saw earning her degree as “nothing short of miraculous” in terms of the opportunities it brought her, she also recognized that there are systemic inequities that create barriers to education and other means of self-advancement.
At the School of Social Welfare, McCall had the opportunity to engage in community-based research to and found she enjoyed the work. At the Office of Multicultural Affairs, she learned about supporting marginalized students and got a good deal of experience working with undergraduates. She also worked with the office’s small lending library, and had a role in expanding the offerings from non-fiction to include more fiction and poetry.
“Having a role in the [Office of Multicultural Affairs] library was really energizing and revelatory,” McCall said. “I see libraries as a natural place to advance social justice. There is so much opportunity to serve one’s community and to give space and platform to recognize the contributions and humanity of people who have been historically underrepresented and marginalized in our cultural institutions.”
Libraries were also a natural place for McCall’s skills and interests to come together. Her academic journey took one more turn, and it brought her back full circle: she returned to Emporia State University for a very different experience, this time to earn a master’s degree in library science.
Through the years and challenges, McCall has gained a new perspective on her initial undergraduate experience.
“What I would tell my younger self is that you’re coming in with so much, so many strengths and so much valuable lived experience,” McCall said.
As part of her work at KU Libraries, McCall now gets to pass that message on to current students.
“Supporting undergraduate students is the key focus of my job and it is a role I take very seriously,” McCall said. “I hope to encourage students to see themselves as scholars and researchers. Research is also part of my job and I consider it a major privilege being hired in a position where someone sees value in the way that I think and the experiences that I bring. Sometimes I just pinch myself that I’m here.”
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