By Claretta Bellamy
Arielle Pierson (ΦBK, University of Pennsylvania) and her mother, Stephanie Pierson, are both celebrating their graduation from the University of Pennsylvania, one of the top ivy league schools in the nation. On May 18, the mother-daughter duo attended the school’s virtual commencement online, while family and university faculty participated in the celebration by parading around their home with signs, cheers, and graduation gifts. This is the first time in the university’s history that a mother and daughter have graduated simultaneously.
“I say this all the time; our entire journey has been very unconventional, and it only seems fitting that we graduate in a really unconventional way as well,” says daughter Arielle Pierson.
Born in Media, Pennsylvania, 28-year-old Arielle Pierson was raised solely by her mother, 48-year-old Stephanie Pierson. During Arielle’s childhood, the Piersons lived in different locations, including Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where her mother taught English. In 2007, the Piersons moved to New Jersey, where Stephanie enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania through the LPS Program, designed to give nontraditional students the opportunity to study at an ivy league school. Stephanie Pierson also received the Bread Upon the Water Scholarship, granted to women over 30 who wish to enroll at the institution. In 2015, Arielle also joined the LPS Program, following in her mother’s footsteps by attending UPenn.
“She’s kind of the catalyst for why I pursued all the things I did,” says daughter Arielle Pierson. “She’s always been an inspiration. Her whole life was spent in service to others and in making sure I had the most fulfilling childhood I could.”
While at UPenn, Arielle majored in anthropology with a focus in archaeology, while Stephanie majored in Latin American border studies. Arielle first discovered her love for archaeology when traveling with her mother during her childhood. As a kid, she visited the Museum of Anthropology and Archeology at UPenn where she became intrigued with different artifacts. By living in Mexico and visiting different places, Stephanie wanted her daughter to be encompassed by rich history and culture.
“I just really wanted to take her and myself and be in a different culture and experience the world from a completely different point of view,” says Stephanie Pierson. “It pretty much defined the rest of my life.”
As an adult, Arielle would later work at the same place she loved as a child. During her five years at UPenn, she was the head supervisor of the North American Archaeology Laboratory at the Penn Museum. Every summer during her time in college, Arielle worked at a prehistoric Native American mound site in Mississippi. During Stephanie’s time at UPenn, she belonged to various organizations, including the UPenn Family Center, where she served on the student/parent advisory board. Besides her education, in college Stephanie’s primary focus was on raising her youngest daughter, Eliana, now 10. It wasn’t until years later during the spring of 2018, she proposed the idea that she and her eldest daughter could graduate together.
“I wanted to because a lot of people graduate with their peer group or their cohort,” says Stephanie. “Because we did it nontraditionally, we didn’t have as many of those close relationships, but the most important relationships to both of us is each other. Neither of us would be there without the other one. It was just a journey that we had undertaken together in so many ways.”
In order to graduate together, Stephanie decided to hold off on taking a necessary writing course so Arielle could catch up. During their time at UPenn, the Piersons took classes together, helped each other study, and had some friendly mother-daughter academic competition.
“My mom would always beat me on everything by one point,” says daughter Arielle Pierson. “If I got a 96, she would get a 97. She’s an incredible, brilliant person. All my professors have always been like, ‘we know where you get it from.’”
Now, the Piersons have both achieved academic success hand in hand. Stephanie Pierson will continue to pursue a master’s degree in nonprofit/ngo leadership, where she aims to work in a sector dedicated to social justice. Arielle has accepted a job offer at Green & Spiegel LLC in Philadelphia, where she will begin working with immigration lawyers in June. In the future, she wants to pursue a joint master’s degree in cultural heritage preservation and indigenous studies, eventually journeying on to law school. As an attorney, she hopes to advocate for the voices of different tribes and immigrant groups, helping them find ways to preserve and protect their culture that they pass from generation to generation.
A proud mom, Stephanie Pierson says that from the beginning, receiving a college degree was not only something she wanted to achieve, but wanted her daughters to achieve as well.
“It’s just an amazing feeling to know that, something we worked so hard and so long for, we finally got to the end of,” says Pierson.
Arielle credits her mother as well, and she also acknowledges that receiving a liberal arts education helped lead her on her destined career path.
“I feel like the people you meet in the liberal arts programs are genuinely human,” says Pierson. “The professors I met along the way were some of the most kind and endearing people who, more than anything, cared about me as a human, and cared about my personal growth as well as my professional growth, and I would like to carry on that legacy.”
Claretta Bellamy earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Rutgers University, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2019. Rutgers University is home to the Alpha of New Jersey chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.