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Maren with his mom, CU Nursing PhD Student Emily Barr May 26, 2021

Mom, Son Overcome Obstacles During COVID-19 to Graduate at the Same Time

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It was a promise between a mom and son that would prove to be much harder to keep than either could ever imagine. In the fall of 2017, Emily Barr made a deal with her son Maren (who goes by Michael), that’d they’d graduate together in the spring of 2021 and celebrate with a party. In four years, Michael would earn his high school diploma from East High School in Denver, while she would earn a PhD with a concentration in Caring Science from the University of Colorado College of Nursing. While it seemed like a reasonable goal, life events would try to knock them off course and make them fail.

It was all going well at first. Emily, a mother of five, a pediatric nurse practitioner, midwife and an assistant professor at CU’s School of Medicine Department of Pediatric Infectious Disease, was managing the pediatric, adolescent and maternal HIV research program at the Children’s Hospital Colorado. She was also going to school and preparing to write a dissertation. Then early last year, a pandemic swept the globe.

Officials asked Emily and her team if she could also run COVID-19 vaccine trials for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases COVID-19 Prevention Network. She agreed to help the cause - even though it doubled her workload.

“I worked weekends and evenings to keep up with my work, and my dissertation got put to the side because there was just not enough time to do it,” said Emily.

With the graduation date looming, Emily decided to take time off and travel to Texas, alone, and focus on her project. But just as she arrived, a massive winter storm hit and blackouts rolled across the state. There was no clean water, heat and electricity. She gave up and decided to leave. But not before breaking her foot.

Now back in Colorado and recovering from foot surgery, Emily finally wrote her dissertation on young adults living with HIV transitioning from pediatric HIV care to adult HIV care. With a pandemic as a new reality, she also included telehealth or online care in her study. Emily successfully defended her study in April, just in time to graduate in May.

The road to graduation was also tough for Michael. Like other high school students, he was sent home in March of 2020 to complete his junior year remotely, and later decided he would stay at home for his senior year, even though it was more difficult for him than most other students. Michael has dyslexia, a disorder that makes it tough to read and interpret words on paper.

“It was not easy for him. He even had a teacher in 8th grade tell him he would never go to college. But other teachers saw his potential and helped. So, Michael finished his senior year strong. He was on the principal’s honor roll at East in the spring and fall of his senior year,” said his mom.

Just one final roadblock stood in the way of Emily and her 18-year-old son graduating at the same time. Emily’s ceremony was canceled because of COVID. But she learned graduates in other programs were going to walk the stage. So, she emailed the dean of her PhD program and asked if she and other nursing students in the PhD program could join the doctoral hooding ceremony. She said yes.

“We didn’t just want our diplomas mailed to us. You work so hard to earn your PhD that we wanted to experience a ceremony. You need to enjoy the moment and participate. It’s a tangible thing to walk across the stage, a tradition that’s been going on for years. Since only one percent of nurses earn their PhD, it should be special and unique,” said Emily.

On May 25th, Michael graduated from East High and earned a diploma. Twelve hours later, his mom officially earned the title of doctor in a hooding ceremony at the University of Colorado. They took a picture in full regalia together to commemorate the moment.

“It was an insane year. We both had a tough time. I worked full time and have five kids. I look back now and wonder how we did that,” said Emily. “Michael was very proud of me. And we are proud of him. We couldn’t have done it without the support of my husband Mark and the rest of our family.”

Michael is headed for Morehouse College in Atlanta, a historically Black college for men. He wants to learn about the business side of sustainable and renewable energy to help promote the health of our planet.

Emily’s goal is to publish her dissertation. She will also apply for grant funding to continue her research on young adults with HIV during transition and patient-provider trust.

She got interested in helping children with HIV after she graduated from Cornell University as a communication major. Before starting a career in journalism, she took a year off to volunteer with other young adults at a farm in Northern California. The family there fostered and adopted children with HIV and AIDS. The volunteers helped take care of them. While she was there, one child died. That experience impacted Emily and changed her future course. Emily decided to become a pediatric nurse practitioner and earned her Master’s in Nursing from Yale University.


(Left to Right) Phoebe, Madeline, Cal, Emily, Mark, Maren & Yabsera Barr

Emily was amazed the California family had adopted several children. When Emily met her husband, it turned out he had also been adopted. Since his father was born in Africa, in 2006, the couple decided to adopt two children from Ethiopia; Michael and his younger brother Yabsera.

Even though the number of guests was limited at their graduation ceremonies, all of the Barr kids and relatives from California to New York were able to watch them cross the stage because the ceremonies were streamed online. It was something that probably would not have happened before the pandemic when people were expected to show up in person.

In the end, the roadblocks they faced opened new avenues and made them stronger and fight harder to keep their vow to get their diplomas together.

Topics: Students