South Jordan • When Dawn Ramsey decided to pause her college career to spend more time with her family, she meant the break to end eventually.
That was true even after caring for six children, some of whom have made their own celebratory commencement walks. It also remained true when she became mayor of South Jordan, one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.
The delay from her academic career wound up lasting 20 years. But now, after many sleepless nights and juggling city duties, Ramsey has fulfilled a longtime promise she made to her parents: She has earned her college degree.
At age 49, the cap and gown were hers and so was the bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life.
“Neither of my parents had the chance to go to college. My grandparents had never gone to college. I didn’t grow up in a family that had opportunities like that,” Ramsey said. “It was just something that always mattered to me, something I always wanted to do and something that my dad always really encouraged me to do.”
Like her father, who completed a semester at BYU but couldn’t afford to go back, she longed to set foot back on campus. The goal was always at the back of her mind and it inched forward as her kids grew.
Though her pause took decades, she managed to consolidate credits from Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah. She took three more classes to get her associate degree at SLCC and, with that foundation, she enrolled at BYU.
“I love social sciences,” she said about her family life degree, “and I love trying to understand the research and the data and figure out how to apply it to policies that can help strengthen individuals and families.”
A few months later, she ran for mayor and, in 2018, became the first woman to hold the city’s top elected post. Her schedule filled up. Some semesters, she squeezed in only one class. It took her 5½ years to reach the finish line.
“I’ve had to take the slow route because life’s been busy. I have a family, and we’re one of the 10 fastest-growing cities in America and there’s just been a lot,” she said. “But I’ve pressed forward.”
Though being South Jordan’s mayor is, on paper, a part-time gig, it can carry full-time commitments.
During the day and on many nights, Ramsey, now in her second term, has been occupied by her civic roles on multiple boards and committees, in addition to the challenges of staying ahead of South Jordan’s growth, whether evaluating a proposal for a Daybreak-like development or preparing to welcome the Salt Lake Bees baseball team into the suburban city of 80,000-plus residents.
“It’s not been easy to fit this in,” she said. “It’s been quite a sacrifice, and I’ve had a lot of really late nights because I’ve tried not to take my time away from my family, give them my attention and give this public service my full attention and do school on my own time, which usually has come late at night.’
A 2018 study by the Utah Women and Leadership Project found that more than 25% of Utah women fall into the “some college but no degree” category, higher than the national average of nearly 20% for women.
Her husband, Dan, stepped in, Ramsey said, making meals and taking over other family responsibilities to support her political pursuits and her college career.
Ramsey hopes to be an example for those who have been in the same circumstances and still dream about returning to the classroom.
“There’s still a finish line. You’re still going to turn 49, or whatever age you are, that’s still going to happen,” she said. “You might as well have the degree come along with it.”
Sydnee Dickson, Utah’s superintendent of public instruction, who has served on various committees with Ramsey, noticed the work the mayor had put into her unconventional collegiate journey.
“Education was important to her personally. It’s a promise that she made to her father,” Dickson said. “But she’s also very focused on supporting education for others because she knows it’s a way out of poverty. She knows it’s the way to economic success. She knows it helps people become more civically engaged.”
Ramsey’s perseverance is something that Dickson applauds.
“We know that education in mothers is a really important factor in the education level of their children,” she said. “It shows work ethic, it shows stick-to-itiveness, so I think there are just so many character traits that we can learn from by watching a mayor achieve her lifelong goal at a time when she’s probably the very busiest in her life.”
And while Ramsey is accomplished in many respects, and is not looking for a career change, her campus experience became essential in her life story.
“I’ve learned something quite a bit along the way, something in every class. I’ve gained so much from this,” she said. “It’s been truly one of the most meaningful and worthwhile things I’ve ever done.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.