Michelle Hall (‘17) remembers like it was yesterday how she cried tears of joy when her daughter greeted her as she walked across a UNI-Dome stage to receive her diploma.
“There, at the end of the line, after greeting all of my professors, was my oldest daughter,” Hall said. “It was so great.”
It was no coincidence. Hall, 46, and her oldest daughter, MaKayla McDonald, 28, received their diplomas on the same day — May 6, 2017 — as McDonald earned her master’s degree in music and Hall earned her bachelor’s in communication studies. McDonald had also earned her bachelor’s at UNI, in voice performance.
That moment was the culmination of years of striving for Hall, who raised four children, overcame domestic violence and first enrolled at UNI at age 41. She now works at a Waterloo nonprofit that serves people affected by homelessness, domestic violence and sexual assault.
She also sits on the board of Cedar Valley Pridefest, which is putting on its annual festival in downtown Waterloo today and Friday. Her years of work supporting the LGBTQ+ community brought her closer to her oldest daughter, now an opera singer based in New York.
“So many of my friends and loved ones identify within the LGBTQ+ community, and it’s extremely important for me to support their journey to live openly and authentically,” said Hall. “My board participation allows me to actively speak out against discrimination and work towards equality. LGBTQ+ rights are human rights.”
As a proud mother, Hall is quick to point out that McDonald honed her operatic singing skills at UNI and most recently premiered in the role of Ida B. Wells in “The Suffragist,” a musical by Nancy Hill Cobb and Cavan Hallman. McDonald, who lives in Brooklyn, also worked with renowned composer Thea Musgrave to portray the title character in the New York premiere of “The Story of Harriet Tubman.”
Hall’s journey to finding her true passion started with her giving birth shortly after graduating from Aplington-Parkersburg (Iowa) High School. For years, she worked in the hotel business, rising from a front-desk clerk to hotel manager while raising her first three children as a single mother.
Making things more difficult was the “tumultuous “ relationship with the children’s father that at time veered towards abuse. Overcoming it all gave Hall knowledge and perspective she now uses as director of community engagement at Friends of the Family.
Hall decided to enroll at UNI in the 2003-2004 school year, hoping to launch a career she could love and that would help her community. “I was finally doing something for me,” Hall said.
Balancing everything wasn’t easy.
“Starting in 2004, I was a mom of three kids and working full-time,” she said. “I’d get the kids off to school, schedule all my UNI classes by 12:30 p.m., and then head out to work as a hotel manager until 11 p.m. I’d sleep for a few hours and do it all over again.”
Her plans were interrupted when her fourth child, son Isaiah, now 16 and a junior at West High School, was born six weeks early, disrupting her plans to finish her last semester in the spring of 2005. She returned to finish her final five UNI classes in 2016, graduating alongside her daughter.
She has more daughters — Aalyah McDonald, 25, a customer service representative, and Jabrea McDonald, 22, a coordinator for an American Sign Language interpreting company in New York.
"UNI is a welcoming place for students from all walks of life, including those who earn a degree while raising a family," said John Fritch, dean of CHAS. "We're proud of all that Michelle and her daughter MaKayla have achieved."
In that role at Friends of the Family, Hall oversees marketing and communications, as well as the internship and volunteer programs at the non-profit’s five offices spread throughout 27 Iowa counties. The non-profit attracts 75 to 100 volunteers and interns yearly.
And Hall is thrilled that she can leverage her own success story to work for a program that operates an emergency shelter for violence survivors.
“It’s a temporary landing spot. We figure out their next steps,” she said. “We operate several housing programs. The goal is to get everyone into a safe, stable home.”
Friends of the Family also operates a crisis hotline that answers 5,500 calls each year.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the non-profit saw at least a 25 percent increase in people coming out of violent situations and those experiencing homelessness, partly because of the heightened risk of violence for those trapped with an abusive spouse or partner and the widespread loss of minimum-wage jobs at restaurants, big-box retailers and convenience stores.
“What we do is absolutely necessary,” she said, noting that the nonprofit has 45 employees spread among its five offices. “So many people need the support. We get to champion and advocate for those who need it most. It’s a boost in getting their life journey moving in a positive direction.”
Hall heightened her educational sights, too, and chose UNI for her bachelor’s degree in part because “it has such a great reputation of being a community of good educators,” she said.
So what would she advise others still looking for their true path?
“It’s never too late to choose to do something different,” Hall said. “Never count out the option of changing your career path. It’s OK to do that.”
Michelle Hall and her daughter MaKayla McDonald