Sarah Roche ’18 did not want to go to college at all. A high school chemistry class had left her feeling so discouraged and incapable that she’d given up on the idea altogether.
She visited a litany of Virginia colleges at the urging of her parents anyway. None of them changed her mind. Until a tour of Mary Washington.
An introduction to chemistry class her freshman year was so interesting Roche ended up minoring in it. Today, she’s working on a master’s in neuroscience in a program so selective that only six percent of applicants worldwide are selected for it.
The prestigious Neurasmus Program, which is run by a consortium of European universities, took Roche to Bordeaux, France, after graduating from UMW with a degree in biology this past May.
Roche, who grew up in Burke, Virginia, insists she was never a superior student. But school came relatively easy to her – until she signed up for an advanced placement chemistry course in her Fairfax County high school.
“It destroyed my interest in school,” she said. “I let that get ahold of me for a couple of years.”
Roche thought about moving to California and working in the vineyards. But she liked what Mary Washington had to offer – its beautiful campus, small classes, engaged professors she felt comfortable approaching.
Afraid of failure, Roche didn’t wait long to ask Michael Lowry, her chemistry professor, for study tips. What he told her changed how she felt about education once and for all.
You are in charge of whether you pass this class, he’d said.
It was empowering advice. “I ran with that. I went to every lecture, read every page, did ever practice problem.”
The university, she said, “was everything I needed it to be and then some. I don’t know that I would have succeeded without Mary Washington.”
At UMW, “I had a voice and an identity. The professors felt so relatable. I never had a bad class or a bad teacher.”
Roche often volunteered to represent the biology department during admissions events. She received the 2017-2018 Biology Scholarship and the Castle Award, given to an outstanding graduating biology major. She tutored other students who were struggling.
On a beautiful day last fall, she was strolling down Campus Walk when she ran into biology professor Parrish Waters. He asked her about her post-graduation plans. When she told him she didn’t know, he recommended the Neurasmus Program.
Roche looked into it. She applied and was invited for an interview. A few months later, she learned she was one of 21 students from around the world who’d gotten in.
This fall, she packed her things and moved to France, where she spends six hours a day in classes.
“I know I would not be here without Mary Washington,” Roche said.
She’s not quite sure what she wants to do at the end of the two-year program. But she thinks about her own discouragement all those years ago, and how it nearly derailed her.
“I realize how privileged I was. I went to a great (high) school. I had a leg up. I had everything going for me. And I still felt discouraged,” Roche said.
Perhaps, she thinks, she will find a way to help struggling students who don’t have the opportunities she had.
Whatever she decides, Roche said, she has the confidence to become whatever she wants.