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A Pinch-Me-I’m-Dreaming Graduation Story

Sheighlah McManus '20“I pinch myself and wonder if I’m dreaming.”

On most days, Sheighlah McManus BS ’20 in Cell and Molecular Biology feels like Dorothy on the other side of the rainbow. Everything appears unfamiliar and marvelous at the same time. It’s no wonder. McManus is the first in her family to earn a college degree, and she’s looking at a full-ride scholarship through to a Ph.D.

Faculty advisor Dr. Albert Ribes-Zamora, associate professor of biology, said, “I wish I could paint a picture of how extraordinary Sheighlah is. She received letters of acceptance from three top tier graduate schools. She considered all of them and decided to accept the offer from MD Anderson, where she will start her Ph.D studies this coming fall.”

A Deck Stacked Against Her

Looking back on McManus’ early roots, the odds were heavily stacked against a good education. Her father dropped out of school to help his sharecropper parents. Her mother managed to get a GED, become a school bus driver, and raise her three children under difficult circumstances. College was never discussed. Surviving was the pressing concern.

McManus recalled, “When my grandfather passed away, he left us his house, but it needed a lot of work. We got evicted from where we were living, because my mom had to stop paying rent, so she could afford to at least put walls up in the house and make it habitable. We moved in and lived there without hot water or heat.”

A Mom on Her Side

Still, her mother wanted something better for McManus and fought to get her into good schools.

“For eighth grade, she sent me to KIPP Liberation—it was a college prep charter school—and for the first time, I was exposed to people who were bound for college even if I knew my family could never afford it.”

Following her KIPP experience, she completed a district school program that certified her to be a pharmacy technician. Maybe that’s when McManus got a glimmer of how remarkable she is. Of the 87 students who entered that two-year program, she was among only six who graduated with an associate degree.

“But I still didn’t think I would go to college, because we had no money.”

A Bet Pays Off Big

Here’s where her story takes off.

“My high school chemistry teacher made a bet with me: If I applied for scholarships at four different universities, she would take me shopping. One of the applications was for the Gates Millennium Scholarship through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and United Negro College Fund, and I got it. Overnight, my education money problem evaporated.”

UST Family Had Science Scholar’s Back

But money wasn’t the only challenge. At UST, McManus would encounter obstacles, then discover everything she needed to overcome them.

“For me, there was a big learning curve going from high school to the academic demands of college. UST supported me with tutors for biochemistry provided by the STEM Success Center.”

Her advisors kept presenting opportunities, and McManus continued to step up. She was named president of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, UST Chapter.

“UST has been a nurturing place for me where I’ve developed leadership skills. The first-rate education I got is excellent, but the second family that I got there is what I treasure.”

Down the road, McManus hopes to work as a researcher in cancer immunology. For now, the science scholar is looking forward to lab rotations at MD Anderson...and that Ph.D at the end of her yellow brick road.

To learn more about STEM program majors at University of St. Thomas, click here.

At her graduation ceremony on December 13 at Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land, McManus with be among 398 undergraduates and 436 graduates from the classes of Winter 2019, May 2020, Summer 2020 and Winter 2020.

A Message from Sheighlah McManus