Christina Naylor recalls seeing UM-Dearborn banners on Evergreen Road as a teen and telling her mother that she wanted to be a Michigan Wolverine. Nearly 20 years later, Naylor is fulfilling that dream — and the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters graduate said her mom will have the best seat in the house.
Class of Fall 2022: CASL graduate Christina Naylor
At age 35, Christina Naylor stepped into a college classroom for the first time in a decade, joined a business fraternity and made the Dean’s List — all while balancing caregiving for a parent and a full-time job. The psychology major dedicates her commencement day to her mom.
“She will be right next to me in spirit,” said Naylor, whose mother Regina passed away earlier this year. “She always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. She was always my cheerleader, encouraging me every step of the way. I know that my mom will be at my graduation because I carry her memory with me.”
Naylor, a psychology major and a human resources management minor, said her college journey was a bit different than most — but she wouldn’t change it.
Naylor started college at UM-Dearborn in 2005, choosing to major in psychology because she enjoyed people watching and wanted to better understand behavior. At that time, Naylor got sidetracked with the responsibilities of her full time service industry job. When she re-enrolled in 2008, she paused to help provide care for her ailing grandparents. Then, in 2019, Naylor made a decision: She was going back to college and would finish.
At age 35, she stepped into the classroom for the first time in a decade, joined a business fraternity and made the Dean’s List — all while balancing long hours at her bartending job at the Detroit Metro Airport.
“My mom had already been encouraging me to go back. And then a human resources manager at my work did too,” Naylor said. Stepping forward to serve as a union steward on behalf of her restaurant team, Naylor found herself passionate about employee and labor relations. Naylor said her courses in psychology during her early college years were helpful in reading body language and shaping her efforts of conflict resolution.
“I really enjoyed helping people solve labor disputes. My long-time HR manager saw my dedication and passion, but I didn’t have the qualifications needed to go into HR and do that work full time. I wanted — and needed — to finish my degree,” she said. “I recognized that everyone has obstacles. This time I was not going to let any of those obstacles get in my way. I was determined. It wasn’t if I was going to graduate, it was when.”
Even though the determination was there, it didn’t come easy. Naylor’s mom was diagnosed with an aggressive form of dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and it progressed quickly. “She was only 66. It got to the point where she couldn’t live alone. I told her, ‘it’s going to be like the good ole days, mom. You and me living together again.”
Then — on top of everything else — COVID hit. “It was such a scary time. But, as hard as lockdown was, it gave us time together. I’m grateful to have had that time with her.”
Naylor said along with the support from sister Angela and boyfriend Sean, her professors and UM-Dearborn staff helped her during particularly tough times.
“I was open about what was going on at home and people would ask me, ‘How are you doing? How is mom?’ Professors let me know they were there for me,” she said. “A few weeks into my cognitive neuroscience class, we covered dementias and how they affect the brain. It was hard to listen to because I was living it, but I cultivated a deeper understanding of the disease. I emailed my professor with more questions because it hit so close to home and he responded right away.”
She said the lessons were personally and professionally enriching. Her CASL psychology classes paired well with her human resources management courses in the College of Business. Naylor said she learned different aspects of tools needed to be a successful HR manager. For example, her business classes showed her how to read a contract from a legal and company perspective, but her psychology courses taught how to look for behavioral cues to better understand what people want.
Her professors also helped her see something in herself and lit a confidence spark that Naylor’s mom had nurtured since Naylor was a child.
“My professors reminded me that I had good reasoning skills — and I needed to speak up and use them to advocate for myself and others. My confidence grew. Since I was very young, my mom pushed me to use my voice. But I was soft spoken and didn’t want to be in the spotlight,” she said. “My mother had been trying to get me to shine my authentic light for years. My mom saw these changes in me and I know she was proud.”
Reflecting on her journey, Naylor said everything happens for a reason and she wants to encourage others who may be in a similar situation.
“For students who are going through challenges or who are on a less traditional college path, I want to say don’t give up and keep chipping away at your goal. Just one small step each day gets you closer to the goal that you are trying to achieve. And the life experiences you gain along the way will help you be a stronger and more informed person when you do reach that goal. Everyone’s journey is different, embrace it.”
Naylor is grateful for her restaurant experience that will help her understand employee motivations in future contract negotiations. She’s appreciative of a degree that will open up HR management opportunities for her in the new year. And she’s thankful for a mom who supported and motivated her every step of the way.
This week Naylor tried on her graduation mortar board. The top of it reads in cursive, “This one’s for you, Mom!” Next week she’ll wear it to the Dec. 17 ceremony.
“Mom was a big Michigan fan and my biggest cheerleader. My mom showed me what strength and determination looks like. I’m now a Michigan graduate. When I look at my degree, I’ll remember how we did it together.”
Article by Sarah Tuxbury.