Megan Polak-Spencer’s Ashland story began almost two decades ago as a star high school swimmer who wanted the tightly-knit small college feel that only a Divison II school provides. It continued as she majored in marketing with a minor in communications, built lifelong relationships and graduated with honors in 2011. And her story continued to shape her life while she lived and worked in Hawaii before a recent move brought her, her husband and their three children to Arizona.
The genesis of her actually telling her Ashland story, however, occurred earlier this year at a Cancer Survivorship event in the American Southwest, where, in her role as a marketing specialist and community liaison for Arizona Oncology, she struck up a conversation with a fellow attendee.
“I was talking to a guy, and he asked me if I’d played basketball in college,” says Megan. “Being 6”1’, it’s not a crazy question. But I told him, no, I swam for a tiny Division II college in the middle of Amish country that he’d surely never heard of. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, a woman appeared out of the crowd behind me and asked where I’d gone to school. She’d also attended a small college in the middle of Amish country, she said, where she’d run track. We both figured we’d know each other’s school since we were both D-II athletes. When I told her I went to Ashland University, her jaw hit the floor. ‘No, you didn’t,’ she said. ‘I went to Ashland.”
The pair spent the next few hours reminiscing about their undergrad years. They took a picture together, which Megan later emailed to Ashland’s Alumni Office with the caption: “Eagles Spotted in the Desert.”
The chance encounter, Megan thought, was one of those fun moments of serendipity life hands out occasionally. But over the following weeks, it also got her thinking about who she was now and how significant Ashland’s role in shaping her trajectory has been.
“The experience showed me how far an Ashland University education can take you,” she says. “And it reminded me of how much of who I am is a direct result of my experience at Ashland.”
Megan’s story is a testament to how seemingly isolated educational experiences can, over time, harmonize to create a successful career and, more importantly, a fulfilling life.
And as a proper marketing professional, she’s even broken them down into bite-sized lessons.
Here are the four most significant things Megan Polak-Spencer learned at Ashland.
“I knew as soon as I stepped onto campus that Ashland was home, that this is where I was meant to be,” she says. “Purple is even my favorite color. But I also knew that to keep me focused–and to ensure that I graduated–I was going to need to be involved on campus with things that would keep me on track.”
She points to swim coach Paul Graham (“CPG”) and the care he showed toward each team member. “You go to a D-I school and you’re a number,” she says. “You’re there to make them money. All they care about is your times in the pool. CPG and everyone else in the Athletic Department cared about every person in the program. They encouraged you when you were down and celebrated your victories right along with you. They cared enough to see who you were and invest in who you were becoming. You won’t get this level of care at other schools.”
Life on the swim team proved to be more than just an extracurricular activity. After practice on Saturdays, the team often ran Special Olympic events, and the experience has impacted her outlook ever since.
“Working with the kids opened my eyes and gave me such a different perspective on the world,” she says. “Every moment they spent in the pool competing was pure joy. Nothing else mattered. I think that’s a powerful life lesson.”
Along with shaping how she approached her life, these experiences also instilled a sense of empathy she still carries with her today.
“Whenever I talk to younger people who are considering college, I tell them, sure, what you learn in the classroom is important. But the most important thing you learn in college is how to engage with people who are different from you.”
This lesson also served her well during her time in Hawaii, where she handled the marketing needs for Kamehameha, a school for native Hawaiian children, and the Hawaiian Association of Independent Schools (HAIS).
“Ashland doesn’t get enough credit for being as diverse as it is,” Megan says. “You are exposed to a lot of different people from a variety of backgrounds. And learning how to live and work with others who aren’t exactly like you is an incredibly important life skill.”
As a marketing research assistant for Oscar McKnight and Ron Paul during her junior and senior years at Ashland, Megan learned what it meant to be a professional. More importantly, she learned that wherever her career path took her in the future, it needed to align with her passions.
A trip to Chicago with the two professors and her fellow marketing students to present a paper is still an academic highlight of her Ashland experience. “It taught me a lot about being a professional. About how to present yourself,” she says. “But even beyond that, I understood that you don’t have to just go work a mindless job for money. What you do can matter. Oscar and Ron embodied this idea.”
When her father was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, her decision to move with her husband and children to Arizona to be closer to him brought this lesson full circle. “I became passionate about the place where my father went through his treatment. And I thought, if I can get a job–and use my marketing degree at the same time–it would be the sign that we should make the move.”
She applied, landed the job and loves the idea that her role at Arizona Oncology is improving the lives of others.
“At Ashland, I learned the importance of following your passion,” she says. “And it’s had a significant impact on my life.”
For Megan, every experience she had at Ashland matters.
Even the negative ones.
“Without going into too much detail,” Megan says, “I got in trouble once while I was at Ashland. But that experience taught me so much. I made a mistake, but the people around me didn’t view me differently afterward. They acknowledged the mistake, I paid the price and we moved on. That might not be something that you’d normally broadcast when you’re telling your story of Ashland. The mistake wasn’t a huge one, but what I learned from it was significant. I’m a better person because of it. I’m a better mother because of it. I use it with my kids all the time. I make sure that when they mess up, they know you aren’t your mistake.”
Megan’s journey is a testament to the power of what happens when you connect your academic pursuits with your personal passions. Her ability to take what she learned at Ashland University and combine it into a diverse skill set within a thriving career helping others during the hardest seasons of their lives is a shining example of what lives at the core of the university’s mission. Her advice to young people looking to get the most out of their college experience is to embrace the opportunities you’re given.
“I can look back on my life,” she says, “and clearly see how all the things I learned at Ashland have come together. A lot of things that didn’t feel important or relevant at the time have converged, and I know I’m right where I am supposed to be.”