Amanda “Mandy” Bonesteel first enrolled at Northern Michigan University following her 1999 high school graduation, but paused her education to marry, raise a family and hold various jobs. Two decades later, while working as a wildland firefighter, she decided to return to campus to complete a degree. Her persistence paid off. Bonesteel earned a bachelor's in sociology in December and will receive the Outstanding Nontraditional Student award from the NMU Board of Trustees before May commencement. She is now a graduate student in Northern's MPA program.
The Lapeer native said she was nervous as an almost-40-year-old returning to school. She had enjoyed the sense of community at Northern fresh out of high school, but didn't know if she would feel out of place as a more seasoned adult surrounded by younger students.
“Between the instructors, other students and the Marquette community, it turned out to be a wonderful experience,” Bonesteel said. “College is much easier for me as a mature person. I was never bad at academics—just paying attention and getting distracted from homework by other things. As an older adult, it's easier to focus. I'm better at time management and more passionate about and engaged in the learning itself.
“Life doesn't always go according to plan. That's where lot of stress and anxiety comes from. Society says you have to do things at a certain age and in a certain order, but I realize it's okay to deviate from what's expected if it's better for you.”
As a McNair Scholar at NMU, Bonesteel researched corrections officer turnover at Marquette Branch Prison during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a Gilman Study Abroad Scholarship recipient, she spent a summer in Africa at the University of Botswana in Gaborone. Bonesteel described it as a transformative experience focused on community public health. She explored the social determinants related to maternal health, lifestyle diseases and sexually transmitted infections, applying some lessons learned via her academic minors in human behavior theory and political science.
Bonesteel also held a three-month internship with MedFocus and the research division of The Power of the Patient Project. Over the summer of 2021, a team of medical sociologists from across the country worked remotely to research and report findings on how patients' experiences in medical offices and hospitals are affected by the attitudes and biases of their providers.
Bonesteel has served as the NMU Citizen's Climate Lobby campus leader and participated in the Student Leader Fellowship Program. She was one of three SLFP members who planned a Holiday Masquerade Ball to raise funds for the new, nonprofit Marquette County chapter of Families Against Narcotics.
She managed to graduate in 3.5 years, despite working full time remotely for AmeriCorps VISTA. In her first role as resource developer, she was tasked with creating an educational resource guide for home visitors serving children born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, and materials to reduce the stigma surrounding mothers with substance use disorders. She is now an AmeriCorps VISTA leader.
Since October, Bonesteel has also served as rural outreach coordinator for Equality Michigan, which supports the LGTBQ+ community through victim services, advocacy and support, and public education across the Upper Peninsula.
“I was terrified to come back to college after so many years and some difficult life experiences, but I realized I'm much more capable than I gave myself credit for,” Bonesteel said. “I've been able to travel around the U.S. and the world, and I've been involved in some amazing projects. It requires a lot of time and work, but it's never too late. It has absolutely been worth it.”