Rania Markham

Rania Markham

3/29/24, 5:05 PM
Rania Markham

Alumni Spotlight

Rania Markham

Liberal Arts

my Mission

When Rania Markham immigrated from Greece at the tender age of six, she was part of a cultural generation that did not believe in educating women. But as she was growing up in America — first in New York City, then Connecticut and finally the Berkshires — she realized she wanted to be different. She wanted to learn, and she was determined to make it happen, even if she was expected to skip higher education and work at her family's restaurant as her parents wished.

Now, Rania is the proud recipient of a master's degree.

"I'm first-generation associates, bachelor's and master's. None of the women in my family had anything," says Rania, who graduated from BCC in 2012 with an associate degree in liberal arts. She now considers it her life mission to encourage women to achieve their dreams.

I swear, I've been put on this earth to tell other women, 'Keep going. Take that step, take the class.' It's just one step closer, even if it's one class at a time. I'm living proof.

A mother of three, including a son with special needs, Rania is accustomed to overcoming obstacles to reach her goals. "I've seen so many barriers that could have just stopped me in my tracks, but I just keep going," she says. Rania has worked for Community Health Programs (CHP) for the past 10 years, where she began as a receptionist and is now a licensed social worker. Recently, she was the recipient of the Chamber of Commerce Women in Leadership Rising Star Award.

"BCC set that course for me, whether it was going to Trio or having a professor like Tim Hickey," says Rania, who fondly recalls Hickey allowing her to bring her son, Ethan, to science class with her when she had no childcare. "I could either bring him with me or I could stay late and ask for help if I needed it. There's something about the culture [at BCC] when you're on campus that just makes you feel welcomed."

That welcoming support was a critical part of Rania's success, especially because she did not have the support of family. Her parents would repeatedly tell her she didn't need academic degrees and that she wasn't devoting enough time to her family. "My mom would say, you have two degrees, why do you need another one?" Rania recalls. But she was undeterred. After earning her associate degree at BCC, she went on to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology from Westfield State University and a master's degree in social work from Simmons University. Her son's autism was the incentive for entering the field.

"I realized, wow, my son's autistic — I want to know more. And then I started to see barriers with the special needs community and I thought, 'I'm going to keep going, and I'm going to be a social worker, and I'm going to advocate for the special needs community and the homeless population and the single moms out there, because somebody needs to be their voice,'" Rania says.

That's exactly what she's doing at CHP, where she helps people fill out applications, arranges getting funding and creates programs like IEP 101, which helps parents understand what they need to get their children enrolled in an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Her favorite part of the job, she says, is connecting families to resources they didn't even know exist. "I've had conversations where people cry because they just don't realize there's funding out there to help them when they're down, or they feel like there's always somebody out there that needs it more," Rania says. "And I advocate that hardworking people are just as entitled. There's no reason you can't reach out for help when you need it."

When she learned she was the winner of the Women in Leadership Rising Star Award, Rania reacted modestly. "I was just doing what everybody else would do," she says. "Everybody should always be empowering somebody else. It's nice to be recognized, but there were like 120 nominated women. To know that I was on the top of their list is just really cool."

Being on the top of the list is something Rania hadn't expected, but she credits much of her success to beginning her higher education at BCC and speaks highly of the community college experience.

"I think community colleges mean exactly what they say. They're communities to help you build this support group around you," she says. "It's not just about the class and passing it — it's about seeing you be successful, as successful as you can, and encouraging you to be motivated and stay motivated. And that's exactly what it did for me. It drew this path I didn't even know existed in my life."

At first, Rania says, she didn't know it was possible to take just one or two classes at a time, and she didn't know anything about financial aid or how to apply for it. BCC helped every step of the way, even when she had to take some time off to care for her children.

"They really kind of took this warm hug and kept me in it until the day I graduated," she says. "And I thought, okay, I'm going to have that same mindset. I'm going to go to Westfield State and I'm going to do two classes at a time and earn my bachelor's. And then I was like, you know what, maybe, I can earn a master's this way. And that's exactly what I did. Here I am, 10 years later, with a path that BCC set for me."

With a master's degree in hand, the future is wide open for Rania, who plans to continue to build off the programs at CHP and focus on bringing resources together in one place "where people can have a one-stop shop and have everything they need to empower them to be better people, to go out into the world and do great things with their lives."

It's been a satisfying journey for Rania, despite its challenges. As she builds her academic resume and her career, she always acknowledges BCC as the place where she found her strength.

"I couldn't have done this without BCC. I never would've been empowered to keep going," says Rania, who recalls graduation day with fondness. "I remember being on stage and just lifting both my arms. I did it — I did it!"