Changing Lives: Rowena Freeman
Leap of faith
Standing at the front of the classroom, seventh-grade teacher Rowena Freeman observes the dark-haired girl to her left. The once-vivacious student has become withdrawn, sometimes hostile. Something is going on, but what—problems with parents, a romance gone awry? Freeman doesn’t know. Not yet. But she has walked these roads, and she knows the best way out of a crumbling life situation—education.
Freeman, who’s working on her doctoral degree, comes from a family that was convinced she would never attend college.
“I always wanted to go to nursing school, but I grew up in a really poor family,” she said. “Only boys and rich people went to college. My mom was the last of 23 children in her family. She said, ‘You will take business classes, be a secretary and get married.’ I actually got in trouble for taking college-prep classes in high school. But I didn’t want to be a secretary. I planned to have a secretary.”
After graduation, Freeman enrolled in nursing school but soon realized that medicine was not for her. Instead, she followed her mother’s life prescription. She got married, left her childhood home in Portland, Maine, and accompanied her husband to Texas, where he began graduate school at UTA. It wasn’t a happy life. Her husband was brutally abusive, both physically and emotionally.
“He was so controlling,” she said. “He wanted to keep his eye on me all the time.”
For more than four years, she never had access to more than a few cents in pocket change. But since her husband was in school and spent most of his time on campus, he allowed Rowena to return to classes as well. He saw her education as a positive, she says, because it kept her within his circle of control. In reality, UTA gave Freeman the knowledge and help she needed to escape.
One professor noted her gift for writing and encouraged her to study English. Another friend, a retired teacher, insisted: “Your heart is in being a teacher. That’s what you must do.” All the while, compassionate staff at the UTA Health Center patched her up after every beating and helped her make the contacts she would need to leave a man who repeatedly threatened to kill her.
But leaving was complicated. Freeman had a young son to think about. She had no money. Her family lived thousands of miles away. Still, she planned, saved her pennies and prayed for the strength to make the toughest decision of her life.
“I walked out on faith,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody, really, but I knew I had to leave.”
In 1999, Freeman graduated magna cum laude from the UTA Honors College with a bachelor’s degree in English. She followed that in 2003 with a master’s in education. Her Ph.D. will be in educational leadership from Andrews University in Michigan. Retired UTA Honors College Dean Carolyn Barros praised Freeman as someone who “tenaciously stuck to the high goals she set for herself. She kept on through all the challenges. She never gave up, never quit.”
The 37-year-old Freeman, who teaches English at Arnold Middle School in Grand Prairie, firmly believes that the bad times happen for a reason.
“I have many things in common with my students,” she said. “They’re poor. They come from difficult family situations. I know what it’s like to be hungry, to be cold. All five of my siblings dropped out of high school. My family still can’t understand why I’m still in school. Not a lot was expected of me, but I wanted more.
“I tell them [the students] what my 10th-grade English teacher shared with me: ‘You can become just a product of your environment, or you can go up the ladder of life. Even if your parents don’t believe in you, you can do it.’ ”
As a child, Freeman traveled the world in books.
“I wanted to live in one of two places, either in Venezuela or in Texas,” she said. “My ex-husband left Texas and I stayed. UTA and the people I met there made it possible.
“All of my experiences have made me what I am today. Now I think back about it, and I wouldn’t change it at all.”
— Sherry W. Neaves