Susan Hamlin, MLS ’19, and Irene Hamlin, AB ’21

Susan Hamlin is four years loyal, and Irene Hamlin became a first-time donor by giving to her Senior Class Gift.

Many parents and their children share a bond as Washington University alumni, but few can claim they were WashU students at the same time. That’s what makes the story of Susan Hamlin, MLS ’19, and her daughter, Irene Hamlin, AB ’21, so special. Susan had hoped to go to law school after earning her bachelor’s degree 25-plus years ago. However, years passed as she focused on building a career as an accountant and paralegal and raising two young children. When Irene was a sophomore at WashU, she told her mother about the School of Law’s Master of Legal Studies program, prompting Susan to realize her long-held dream of studying law at the graduate level.

Both Susan and Irene thrived at WashU, and they did so together. Susan earned her degree in December 2019 but wanted the experience of walking in the larger spring 2020 Commencement. Unfortunately, COVID-19 upended those plans and she had to wait until May 2021 to participate in Commencement in person. By that time, Irene was set to graduate with the Class of 2021 in a separate ceremony taking place just nine days prior. The uncertainties and delays caused by COVID-19 yielded a surprising but welcome silver lining for the Hamlins: they were able to celebrate their individual accomplishments in back-to-back Commencement ceremonies.

A generous scholarship made it possible for Irene to choose WashU. Her decision catalyzed her mother to take a leap and pursue an intellectual passion then on pause. The Hamlins recognize how much WashU has given them, which is why they strongly believe in paying it forward by giving back. Susan is now four years WashULoyal, and Irene became a first-time donor by giving to her Senior Class Gift.

Please share a bit about your path to WashU. What drew you to the university?

Irene Hamlin: Although I was looking at schools in the Midwest, I truthfully hadn’t heard of WashU until my mom mentioned it to me during the fall of my junior year of high school. We were scheduled to attend my cousin’s wedding in St. Louis in October and decided to set up a visit while we were there. Both of us completely fell in love with the campus. Ice cream is one of my favorite foods in the world, and WashU gave us Ted Drewes frozen custard at the end of the tour. I remember my mom telling me, “Oh, you’re coming here for sure!” However, I knew admission to WashU would be competitive. When I received my acceptance notification, I screamed with excitement.

After that, we returned for another visit. I knew WashU would be a great place for me, especially given my interest in medicine. The community was so warm and inviting, and the university’s connections and resources are amazing. It felt like a new adventure but also manageably close to my hometown of Akron, Ohio.

Susan Hamlin: I was first introduced to WashU many years ago while working for an attorney whose daughter I helped with college applications. One of her applications was to WashU. I knew it was a wonderful school but I didn’t know much about it until Irene and I visited. And, like she said, I was blown away by the beauty and amenities of the campus. During one of our visits, we toured the School of Law because law has always been my passion. We walked through the gorgeous Law Library, and I thought to myself, “what I wouldn’t give to study law here.” And then I didn’t give it a second thought.

When Irene was a sophomore, however, she found out about the Master of Legal Studies (MLS) program, which allows for what I call “remote attendance.” I was a bit older by the time I’d earned my bachelor’s degree. I worked and went to school part-time and then had my son and daughter. I wasn’t able to go to law school like I’d hoped. Even so, I’ve worked in law as an accountant and paralegal for 30-plus years. I was ready for a new challenge and decided to apply to the program.

I was spending the summer in St. Louis with Irene, who was enrolled in classes, as I awaited my admissions decision. One day, we met up for lunch in the atrium of Anheuser-Busch Hall. I was inside the law school the moment I found out I’d been accepted to the law school. You can’t make this up! Irene had already left for class, so I waited outside her building to share the good news. She cried. I cried. It was so exciting.

How would you describe your overall experience at WashU?

Irene:  I loved it. My experience was incredible from the very beginning. During my first semester, I took general chemistry with Professor Richard Loomis. It’s a really challenging course with several hundred students. I felt like one in a sea of many, so I went to my professor’s office hours to introduce myself and ask questions. Because of that, he got to know me well enough to call on me by name during class. At the end of the semester, I received an email from him thanking me for my active participation. To feel that level of personal connection in a class of more than 300 students is outstanding. To me, it speaks to how deeply WashU professors care about their students’ academic and personal success.

I can’t tell you how many of my professors asked me about my mom while I was a student. Perhaps I’d mentioned her in conversation or they’d met during parents’ weekend or another visit. They remembered the details of my life and were curious about me as an individual. It was really difficult for me to leave home for college because my mom and I are so close. I never got homesick here because the community was so supportive and nurturing. It felt like everyone was in my corner, cheering me on.

I found terrific mentors across the university. On the Medical Campus, I did infectious disease research in the Budge Lab. There, I worked with experts who were not only eager to teach me and help me grow but they were also understanding about my class schedule. I also took part in medical humanities research over the summer on the Danforth Campus. I am immensely grateful for my WashU experience.

Susan: WashU tells students that they will be known by their name and story. I found that to be true, both in watching Irene and in my own studies. Because the majority of my program was conducted remotely, there were students logging on from Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere throughout the world. I never would have come into contact with my classmates or my professors without this program, and now they’re some of my favorite people. The program was so unique that I hesitate to call it “online” learning. All of my classes were held in real time—none were pre-recorded. We built real relationships, first virtually and then during several on-campus sessions. Some of us have stayed in contact, meeting up during graduation and going out for dinner. I’m really thankful for my experience and that it happened at the same time and place with Irene.

What was it like to be WashU students at the same time and to celebrate Commencement together?

Irene: It was really special. My mom always wanted to become a lawyer but made the selfless decision to put her kids first. Once my brother and I reached independence, she finally had the time and flexibility to pursue her dream. We studied together and, sometimes, I would listen in on her classes. It made me proud to see her do what she loves and excel at it.

Commencement was pretty crazy. My mom technically earned her degree in December 2019 but wanted to wait and walk with the Class of 2020 during spring Commencement. COVID obviously changed those plans. We had a small graduation ceremony for her in our backyard but it just wasn’t the same. Because the university held in-person ceremonies for the Classes of 2020 and 2021, we ended up celebrating our graduations a little over a week apart. WashU let me keep my gown so we could take a picture together in front of Brookings Hall, which was really wonderful.

Susan: We enjoyed being able to share the WashU student experience together. Because I started WashU after Irene but graduated before her, I joke that she’s a legacy!

What inspired you to make your first gift to WashU? Why do you think it is important for alumni to give to Washington University year after year?

Susan: About a month or so into her first year, Irene called me and said, “Mom, I wake up and I’m so happy every single day. I’m exactly where I was meant to be.” That’s what you dream of as a mother! Knowing that she was that happy at WashU was such a gift, and it really helped me through the transition of her leaving.

WashU provided Irene with a world-class education that ultimately led to her acceptance at a prestigious medical school. She was able to have that experience at WashU because of the many generous donors who support scholarships. Although neither of us has the means to make a large gift, we both feel it’s incredibly important to show our gratitude, even in the smallest way. By giving back, we hope we can help another student along the way.

Irene: My mom is truly grateful for everything WashU has done for me, especially the way its community cared for me, loved me for who I am, and pushed me to be better. My positive experience at WashU inspired her philanthropy, and it also was the reason I decided to make my first gift upon graduation. I couldn’t have imagined a better four years. There are so many talented students who deserve a WashU education but cannot afford it. I want to help make the amazing experience I had at WashU a reality for other students by continuing to support scholarships.

Looking back on your time at WashU, what are some of your favorite memories?

Irene: I don’t know if I can pick just one or two favorite moments. Overall, my favorite part about WashU was really the people. I also really enjoyed orientation and Convocation. There was a total solar eclipse on my first day of college during orientation. My entire class walked to Oak Knoll Park to watch the eclipse together through our special glasses. Looking back, it was a special moment symbolizing all of the once-in-a lifetime opportunities I would have over the next four years.