By Tiffany Whitfield

When Rachel Peyton steps on stage this May to receive her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Old Dominion University, it will complete a more than two decades-long journey.

Peyton started at ODU in 1999 after graduating from Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, but changes in her family and life forced her to pause her education. She got married, had kids and when her mother became ill, she stepped up to take care of her. 

“There were just all these things going on in my personal life and I just couldn't balance them both,” Peyton said. “I had to take a break.”

After a year, her mother passed away. Not only did she want to return to ODU to finish what she started, but she wanted to make her mother proud too.

“I could hear my mother in the back of my head saying, ‘You will finish this degree, you will finish,’” Peyton said.

Her mother’s passing also inspired her to reconnect with her Native American heritage.

“She was the one that had taught and instilled my sense of who I was and where we had come from,” Peyton said. “Although I am still going through the process of reconnecting, it has deepened my feelings of cultural belonging and community.”

Peyton said knowing that Native Americans are underrepresented in higher education also compelled her to finish her degree. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, in 2020, 22% of the 18–24-year-old Native American population were enrolled in college compared to 40% of the overall U.S. population. Additionally, the organization reports that since Fall 2010, Native American enrollment has declined from 196,000 to 123,000, a 37% decrease:

“There is definitely a part of me that wants it known that we are still here and still contributing,” Peyton said.

Before returning to ODU, she focused on raising her children whom she also homeschooled. Her path back into higher education started at Tidewater Community College during the COVID-19 pandemic. She decided to pursue an associate degree in general studies before re-enrolling at ODU in the spring of 2022.

Inspired by her mother who was an addiction counselor, she chose to study psychology.

“I grew up in an environment where I saw her helping people,” Peyton said.

She said she also finds the depth of psychology fascinating.

“One of my greatest loves of psychology is that no matter how deep you go, you're not there yet,” she said. “There’s going to be another opinion or another study. I'm never going to reach the bottom and I'm never going to run out of something new to uncover.”

As an undergrad, she served as a teaching assistant, a tutor and a supplemental instructional leader with ODU’s Science Tutoring Centers. Peyton said she wants to pursue a master’s degree in psychology at ODU after graduating so that she can combine her love for research and teaching.

“Rachel is an extremely hard-working student and has demonstrated a level of resilience unlike many undergraduates I have instructed,” said Elaine Murphy, a psychology lecturer at ODU. “After completing my course, Rachel became an invaluable resource for future students by serving as a specialized tutor for my classes. It has been a pleasure to see her growth as a student and peer mentor.”

As a woman with Indigenous heritage, Peyton also felt that ODU’s diversity and welcoming environment helped her transition back into higher education.

“At ODU, we take students from all over the world and all walks of life,” she said. “I hope to spread awareness to the fact that we (Native Americans) are not just a part of history, but we are also part of the present.”