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The University of Alabama

Find Your Passion: Overcoming Odds, Obstacles of Divorce

By Rachel E. Kelly


Hawthorne working towards her psychology degree.

Michelle Hawthorne has a simple explanation for the rising divorce rate: “The divorce rate is so high because people give up so easily, and they are not willing to work for the relationship.” The University of Alabama student plans to devote her time educating people about how a family split can affect children.

Hawthorne is not your average UA student. She is 34 and on track to finish her undergraduate degree in psychology in May 2009. “When you get older and you see things in a different way, certain things become more important,” she says.

One thing important to Hawthorne has also become her passion – the study of parental alienation syndrome or PAS. While not a commonly known syndrome, most have witnessed it. It occurs when a child is intentionally or inadvertently turned against one or both of their parents. PAS is the effect on the child from being alienated.

Hawthorne says she was introduced to PAS when she became a victim of it. Her parents divorced when she was in the second grade. She says she soon experienced the alienation.

Hawthorne has lived anything but an ordinary college student’s life. She graduated from high school in May 1992, married in June, and had her first baby in September. Hawthorne says she and her husband were both children of divorce and were determined to make their marriage work.

“I was married and pregnant at age 18,” says Hawthorne. “Of course, all the odds were against us for a successful marriage, but because my husband’s parents were divorced also, I think we were more determined to prove everyone wrong.” And, so far they have … they just celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary.

Hawthorne wishes to educate people about parental alienation syndrome in hopes they will not trigger it. (Photo by Zach Riggins)

Hawthorne wishes to educate people about parental alienation syndrome in hopes they will not trigger it.
(Photo by Zach Riggins)

Not only has Hawthorne managed her own family while in school, she took in other extended family members whose ill mom went through a vicious divorce.

Helping those younger relatives cope with their own mother’s illness prompted Hawthorne to realize psychology was an interest. “I had decided a few years earlier that I would go back to school, start getting some classes behind me and try to figure out what I wanted to be when I grow up!” she says. “It didn’t take long for me to realize what I needed to do.”

In 2000, eight years after graduating from high school, she started taking classes, one course a semester. By 2006, she had taken 20 classes and decided it was time to start full time. Hawthorne credits her success, including a 3.98 Grade Point Average during the spring 2008 semester, to support from her family, co-workers and supervisor.

This fall Hawthorne is working with Dr. Denise Cleveland of the UA School of Social Work to study the effect of divorce on children who are in juvenile detention.

Hawthorne’s main goal is educating people about PAS, so that they won’t be perpetrators. She hopes to eventually find a measure for family court judges to use to determine which parent is participating in PAS in divorce cases.

After graduation, she wants to attend graduate school and eventually receive her doctorate in psychology and work in divorce mediation for the family court system. “There are a lot of questions that I have about this,” she says. “But more than satisfying my curiosity, I love to educate people on PAS as often as possible.”

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion series. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.

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