Valedictorian, Class of 2023
Ashton Bird didn't want to go to college. Born and raised in Dalton, Ashton graduated from Waconah High School and hadn't particularly enjoyed his high school experience, especially during the pandemic. College was something he didn't think had much merit. But when his dad said he'd pay for BCC, and that he only had to take a few classes, Ashton took a leap of faith.
"Going to BCC was more out of reluctance — it wasn't something I necessarily wanted to do, but something I was influenced to do," Ashton says, adding with a laugh, "It worked out really well for me."
Within his first semester, Ashton began to see education in a different light. He had planned to take three classes, but when Professor of Psychology Wayne Klug sent out a mass email recommending psychology majors take a class called Psychology of the Mass Media, it piqued his interest. "It was a really fun class — such a cool topic," Ashton recalls. "Between that and the project I did for communications, it was like, hey, I'm kind of good at this!" He got all A's, which had never happened for him before.
"I wasn't considered one of the really smart ones in high school. I wasn't even in the National Honor Society. So to go to a place of higher education and suddenly be smart was really baffling to me," Ashton says.
Ashton's communications project was based on a disagreement with part of the class textbook — something not unfamiliar to him. "I had a history of doing that in high school and middle school. I would disagree with an assignment because I didn't like the way it was done or I'd think it was unfair," he says. "So I'd voice my opinion and write an essay about it, and then I'd get in trouble. Apparently that was the wrong thing to do in high school."
But at BCC, Ashton found that civil discourse was not only tolerated, but encouraged. The communications textbook had a section discussing the properties of a "bad listener," detailing what Ashton calls "textbook ADHD symptoms." Born with significant hearing loss, Ashton has a related auditory processing disorder. He knows a thing or two about listening.
"I was like, hey, that's not very kind, so I wrote a paper about how we need to talk about that more, how we need to fix that. This listening thing doesn't look the same on different people," says Ashton. He got a 100 on the paper and later attended research conferences on the topic.
This type of observation and analysis is something Ashton finds satisfying. He majored in psychology not necessarily to lead to a career, but because he is "fascinated by how people think, and in understanding how and why what goes into the way a person thinks."
In fact, Ashton says his interest in psychology stems from wanting to know how and why he thinks the way he does. "I spent so much time trying to figure out why things other people did didn't work for me. I had been in and out of therapy, and I was like, how come everything they're telling me is not resonating? Why is my brain like this?" Ashton muses. "If I can figure out myself, I can learn things about other people on the way, and learn how to do what works for me — how to 'people.'"
A self-described loner in high school, Ashton says he didn't go out of his way to interact with people and felt like he didn't fit in. But as soon as he started taking psychology classes, something clicked. Now, he's thinking about a career in therapy or going to med school, but first, he plans to transfer to Hampshire College to finish his bachelor degree in "something psychology or biology related."
Those are impressive goals for the person who never wanted to attend college in the first place, making it a bit surreal for him that he is the class valedictorian. When he got the call that he had been selected, it took a moment to sink in.
They called when I was driving on my way to the meditation class I taught at BCC. I pulled over and they told me I was picked, but it took my brain a minute to process it. I can't wrap my head around the size of it because nothing like that has ever happened to me. It's a mixture of 'wow, this is cool' and 'I don't know how to react to this.' It's never anything I would have expected of myself.
Ashton is quick to credit BCC with helping him to succeed, particularly the people he met along the way. "I hang out in Student Engagement a lot because I work there. The people are so kind," he says. "My professors and all of the staff I've interacted with are just incredible." Plus, Ashton says, "The fact that people don't even realize I'm an introvert speaks to how nice the environment is at BCC. I'm allowed to express myself in my own way."
He names Chris Laney, Honors Scholar program coordinator, as particularly influential. "He has seen most of my growth at BCC through my participation in the honors program. It was so nice to have someone I could talk to, in or outside of the classroom. He has a similar attitude towards learning that I do," Ashton says. He also credits Assistant Professor of Psychology Kathleen Lynch and his advisor, Sarah Blizzard, as people he could look up to.
As for getting a community college education, Ashton is a believer. "It's a good starting point for pretty much anything. It's affordable. It gives you the chance to try, to test it out," he says. "And, since you don't have to have a certain amount of classes each semester, there's not as much stress. It's more of a relaxed way to try things and see if you like what you're doing."
Back in Dalton, Ashton lives with his parents, grandfather and little sister, in the house his father grew up in. They share the space with three cats, two dogs, four rats, eight rabbits and two birds. Aside from tending to the many animals in his life, Ashton spends his spare time in a variety of ways.
"I read a lot, and I have a lot of books that are just for learning. I play video games, listen to podcasts, make abstract art paintings. I play guitar, flute, ukulele, electric bass, keyboard and sax," says Ashton, who also practices archery and is currently learning Japanese. "I like shoving things into my brain. I like collecting information. I guess you could say I like to learn things."