When she came back to campus her sophomore year, she felt like she was betraying her
family. A few months earlier, her mother had been found strangled in a river near
their Detroit home. Rachel Wimberly didn’t feel like she should leave her blended
family with five siblings, but she had to stick with college.
She was an inner-city girl who used to get herself and her younger sister up at 5
a.m. to catch a city bus to school, working to pay their bus fares. She was on the
swim team so she stayed late, often getting home at 9 p.m. before eating, studying
and falling into bed.
“It was always me motivating myself,” she says. “If I had an A, I had to get higher.
That’s what I knew would get me out of the city.”
The summer her mother died, Wimberly was working as a residential camp counselor two
hours away. She heard her mom was missing, but that wasn’t unusual for a complicated
woman with a history of substance abuse. Wimberly kept her phone on full volume for
a week, hoping to hear something, making calls during breaks to try and find her.
When the call came that a body had been found, she knew. The next day she was making
funeral arrangements. And then she changed her fall schedule, emailing her professors
and postponing her grief, getting a perfect 4.0 that semester.
The next semester was her worst ever. She dropped two classes and abandoned a second
major in philosophy. She found renewed strength through studies in her primary major,
sociology — a subject she became passionate about after taking an introductory course
with Assistant Professor Meghan Burke. “She was phenomenal. I didn’t even know you
could study sociology. I fell in love with it, and that was because of her.
“I have begun to understand more about the way people think about others,” she says,
adding her major is starting to teach her about what she could do to make a difference
on campus. “I am starting to understand how where people come from shapes who they
are, and why they act how they do around people like them and different from them.”
Wimberly is on course to be the first in her family to graduate from college in 2015.
She plans to pursue a master’s degree to prepare for a career in sociology or student
affairs. She wants to help others find their way.
At IWU, she is a residential community advisor, co-president of the Pride Alliance
and president of PRISM, a new student organization that strives to examine societal
prejudice and privilege and to bring together like-minded multicultural and social-justice
She’d like to see first-generation college students have a mentor and a space where
their feelings can be validated, like she found in Burke’s office.
“I went into Meghan’s office crying my first semester, feeling I didn’t belong. I
didn’t know what I was doing. I was in seven clubs. I was always the caretaker of
my younger siblings. It was freeing, and it was also strange that I didn’t have anybody
telling me what I could do.”
Knowing she had one person on campus she could always call on for support meant the
world to the 21-year-old who never knew her father and tragically lost her mother,
though she had one person back home, one of her mother’s friends, who paid for her
swim lessons and took her on college visits.
“It’s really hard for me now that my mom’s dead,” she says. “When somebody says ‘Here’s
an emergency contact form, I need two people,’ I say, ‘I can give you one.’”
When Wimberly lists what she still struggles with, the list is almost too short: being
a lesbian and having curly hair. She laughs.
But there is more.
“I bake cakes for everybody and I always made my mom’s icing. When I went to make
it after she died, I couldn’t remember the recipe, and I picked up the phone to call
On her phone she replays a short video of her mom watching her at a swim meet.