Commuting for hope, 100 miles at a time

Austin junior Hailey Pearson commutes 400 miles per week to and from Waco for her Baylor classes. Graphic illustration by Olivia Havre.

By Emma Weidmann | Staff Writer

Like most upperclassmen, Austin junior Hailey Pearson lives off campus. Unlike most, Pearson travels to campus from her apartment in Austin every Tuesday and Thursday. After a long day of classes, she makes the journey home once more.

Four hundred miles, six hours on the road and $90 spent on gas each week are the marks of Pearson’s commitment. Pearson’s parents are separated, and her father is sick and cared for by her stepmother and nurses, making Pearson eager to see him as much as possible. Although she enjoyed living on campus during her freshman year, Pearson said living far from home has made her feel disconnected.

“I felt like I was separated from the people I love most,” Pearson said. “Then my father ended up getting sick, and I felt like I was neglecting that connection by not being close to him … I felt like I was neglecting my sister as well. You feel helpless in a way when someone you love is sick and you want to be there for them … You want to make as many memories as you can.”

Pearson said she briefly considered a gap semester after struggling with mental health and losing two family members, her uncle and a cousin, during her freshman year. She isn’t alone. According to Dr. Burt Burleson, university chaplain and dean of spiritual life, 50-75 Baylor students experience a loss in their immediate family every year. After talking with Burleson, Pearson said she got the support she needed and made finishing school a priority.

“[He] is an angel,” Pearson said. “He’s the nicest man I’ve ever met in my life … There are so many people who are not only willing, but want to help you [at Baylor]. I’m able to be more hopeful now, where I know that even if the worst-case scenario happens, you’re going to be OK at the end of it.”

Burleson said Spiritual Life helps students who may be facing a challenging situation gain stability by letting professors know the situation and getting students the support they need. As a minister, Burleson said it’s important to him to be present and in the moment with students.

“You want to be real,” Burleson said. “You want to be a human being … Baylor ought to be, in a Christ-like way, a kind place.”

Pearson said she sat down one day and worked out the logistics of commuting twice a week from the state capital to campus.

“Now I get to see my father every day, and when I’m not at home or with my friends at [The University of Texas], I’m here,” Pearson said. “Commuting was the best choice for my family, and it was the best choice for me.”

When Pearson is home, she spends quality time with her father and 5-year-old sister. Pearson said her father “bleeds burnt orange,” and she’ll often sit and watch UT football games with him at home.

But the experience is not without stress. Pearson said she’s never been more tired in her life and sometimes struggles to find motivation to drive to Waco in the mornings. She said she currently has very little choice. If she chooses not to come to campus, she misses three classes, whereas the average student can skip just one.

Burleson said he was once told “God comes to you disguised as your life.” He said struggles are an opportunity not just for learning but for “becoming.”

“It’s a part of what it means to be a human being, to deal with despair but also long for hope,” Burleson said. “We’re made for this … Something’s happened for [her] where she’s able to say, ‘I’m going to keep at it.’ Whether you call it resilience or perseverance or grit … how do we help people return to this capacity for hope and make it through difficult things?”

Hope is in no short supply for Pearson. Graduating from college has been a dream of hers since childhood, one that she’s determined to fulfill no matter how many early mornings on the road it takes.

“Losing hope isn’t an option for me,” Pearson said. “I really want to make my family proud. It’s not a choice to give up.”

Emma Weidmann is a junior English major from San Antonio, with minors in News-Editorial and French. She loves writing about new albums and listening to live music. After graduating, she hopes to work as an arts and culture reporter.