Rachel Matlock, originally from Camden, crossed the commencement stage Dec. 15 to receive her Master of Science degree in family and consumer sciences from the University of Tennessee at Martin. While receiving any degree is a milestone, Matlock has been through more heartache to reach this goal than most.
After starting her undergraduate degree in social work at UT Martin in 2010, Matlock’s father passed away the following spring after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Then in October, two months after beginning her sophomore year at the UT Martin Parsons Center, Matlock, then Rachel Dickinson, married Matthew Draper. Exactly eight months later, Draper was killed in an automobile accident with a drunk driver.
“He would always tell me ‘school first, school first, That is what’s important. You need to focus on school.’ He always made certain that I put that first. And so, when he passed away … I wasn’t able to make my Tuesday class because my husband’s funeral was that day, but I was back in class by Thursday because all I could hear was my husband saying ‘school first. You need to focus on school. School first,’” she said. “I needed to not give up on it. No matter what happened, I knew that was what I wanted, and I didn’t want to give up on it.”
The following years were difficult while Matlock dealt with the loss of her husband. Not wanting to let go of the dream of higher education, she took a brief absence from UT Martin to earn an associate degree from Nashville State Community College. However, the dream never died, and she returned to UT Martin in 2013 to finish what she started. She graduated summa cum laude in the spring of 2014 with a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to do something big. … It was never a question for me growing up that I would go to college. I’m one of those people that so many things interest me, and I love to learn, and I love to grow. So I could never have seen myself not getting my degree,” she said.
Having finished both two-year and four-year degrees, Matlock intended to start immediately on a master’s, but life again had other plans.
“That fall of 2014, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, and she became my priority. In the spring of 2015, I found myself divorced (from her second husband) and taking care of my mother while working full time. My three brothers, their wives, and I did the best we could to see after her. She lost her battle in my arms on Aug. 14, 2015,” said Matlock. “Somewhere, very deep down, I knew I was more than this loss as well, but it took much longer to realize that.”
The following year, in 2016, Matlock married her current husband, Doug Matlock, and learned she would give birth to her first child, a daughter she once thought would never come.
“Throughout this pregnancy, I knew I wanted more. Not just for myself any longer, but for my child. I wanted to give her the world, and I also wanted to show my stepson that you don’t give up,” she said. She soon enrolled in the UT Martin master’s degree program in family and consumer sciences and finished her coursework during the summer of 2018.
Now, the 26-year-old lives in Paris and works in community outreach at the Henry County Health Department, where she teaches school and community classes on health issues and personal care. She says her background in social work helps her understand what her clients may be going through.
“I started out working in mental health when I got my bachelor’s degree from UT Martin. I worked with people who were severely and persistently mentally ill. They were coming out of psychiatric hospitals, and we were trying to rehabilitate them and teach them different independent living skills and life skills so they could live on their own,” she said. She began to notice a pattern of mental health issues combined with medical health issues, and now uses this connection to assist those in her community.
“I’m a firm believer that anything medical health is all going to be fueled by mental health. So many of our medical issues, they revolve around what we have going on in our minds. So I feel like they go hand-in-hand,” she added.
Looking back on her journey, Matlock says UT Martin played a major role in helping her achieve her educational dreams.
“Especially through all of the difficult times that I’ve had, UT Martin has been so good to me. … The professors I had during that time (when her husband died), there’s not one that gave me a problem any time I needed anything. When I was at (the UT Martin Parsons Center) when my husband passed away, they were so good to me – checking on me and sending me a card. Just like a family,” she said.
Her academic adviser at the time, Michelle Horton, professor and director of the social work program, helped support Matlock through the uncertain time after her first husband’s death and encouraged her to continue her pursuit of higher education. Horton herself passed away in 2016 after a battle with brain cancer.
Matlock would love to complete a doctoral degree someday, but she no longer holds to a life plan.
“If I’ve learned anything, it’s that life plans are kind of a joke because you don’t know,” she said. “In five years, I hope to know more than I know now. I hope to still be loving my family. I hope to still have all of my family that I have left. I hope to be happy. I hope to be doing something I’m passionate about. I hope to still be teaching people. I hope that people can still look to me as an example of doing things with your whole heart.”
Her lesson to her children is this: “No matter what you choose to do, no matter what path you come across, no matter what cards you get dealt, whatever you do, do it with your heart. Put everything you’ve got into it. Don’t halfway do anything. Anything worth doing is worth doing with your whole heart.”