Berryl Merrill will accept her diploma on June 1 with a crowd of supporters–some traveling from Louisiana and Atlanta–behind her and the photos of late family members adorned in flowers on top of her mortarboard. Her favorite Bible verse, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, and the flowers—a daisy for her mother Daisy, a rose for her grandmother Rose, and pink and purple flowers for her siblings and father—pay tribute to her loved ones who’ve kept her going along the way. They’ve been the inspiration and driving force behind her earning her Bachelor of Science in Social Work at the age of 50 and continuing on in Spalding’s Master of Social Work program in the fall.
What is your favorite Spalding memory?
In our [cohort’s] second social work class, we had to do a genogram—a map that displays your family [relationships and medical history]—and then present it to the class. I believe that when we sat down and listened to each other’s stories is when we made our connection. From that point we’ve been close. We talk every day.
What accomplishments are you most proud of during your time at Spalding?
I’ve been able to make As and Bs throughout—I’ve not made a C since I started—and maintained a high GPA. My older brother, who I was very close to, ended up getting cancer [after I started the program]. He was going down rapidly, and I wanted more time with him. I wanted to stop [out of school] and just go be there with him until he took his last breath. But he told me, “I want you to finish,” and with him saying that, I never missed a day.
After graduation, how do you plan to change the world, big or small, and what or who inspires you to be a #spaldingworldchanger?
Well, you know, one of the most amazing things happened to me today. I had the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Nadia Siritsky [vice president of mission at KentuckyOne Health]. She explained to me everything that they do at Jewish Hospital and what I could do as a practicum student there, helping people who have addictions. As she told me what the job would entail, I sat with my heart about to explode, thinking, “When do I sign up? How can I do this?! I’m ready to do this!”
I want to serve in any place where I can be an inspiration to anyone. I’m all about trying to change the world, trying to get people to live their lives as if the world is watching. You never know who may be watching and say, “I want to be like that.” That fills my soul the most. And I want nothing in return other than a smile. And that’s what I try to instill in my children. [I tell them,] “If you ever do something for someone, make sure you’re doing it because you really want to do it and you’re not expecting anything in return.”
So who was the person in your life that you saw and said, “I want to be like that”?
I have my grandmother and my mom, and just give me a minute while I am talking about them. [Pause] Those two women [Pause] I just sat back and watched. There was this one pastor who came to [my grandmother’s] house and told her how grateful he was to her. When he was a child, she was a cook at a school. She would give him extra food because she knew that he was hungry and they did not have a lot of food at their house. She would cook extra at home, and she would always feed other people. That’s just the type of person she was, and my mom was pretty much the same way. I remember when we were playing outside [as kids] and one little boy was playing with us. When mom called us in to eat, he came too. She would never turn anybody away. I had a friend that was not as fortunate as us. If she was with us and my mom bought something for me then she would buy something for her too. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s just how she raised us.
It sounds like it’s been a full circle of events for you to get to this place and really carry out your family’s tradition of helping people. How has your Spalding experience played into that?
I feel like my time being here is by no mistake. I am where I am at the right time. Any other time I don’t think I would have had the mindset to accomplish what I needed to accomplish. I just thank [my professors] for their support and their encouragement. In all of my classes at Spalding, I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t show a connection or have some type of compassion or care for the students. That made the difference for me.