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Starting over in Houston after Hurricane Katrina

Sociology major Megan Ball Neel completes degree, awarded UH Law Center scholarship

Student: Megan Ball Neel

Three years ago, Megan Ball Neel was a divorced, single mother suddenly unemployed when the company she worked for closed.

Today, she is a newlywed and a Spring 2013 graduate with a bachelor’s of arts in sociology and a scholarship to attend the UH Law Center next fall.

The turnaround in her life circumstances has been a challenging journey that includes uprooting herself and her family from her hometown of Baton Rouge, La. after Hurricane Katrina. The ability of natural disasters and economic slowdowns to throw her plans off course taught Mrs. Neel how to expect the unexpected.

But she was completely unprepared for the unexpected to arrive as good news – a scholarship she didn’t know existed.

“I was surprised when I was contacted about being awarded the scholarship,” said Neel. “This was one of very few scholarship opportunities, and it can be renewed annually if I remain in the top 70% of the class.”

All applicants accepted to the UH Law Center are automatically placed into consideration for a Dean’s Scholarship. No action is required by the student.

These merit-based scholarships vary in number and amount. For Mrs. Neel, the award will cover about one-third of the cost of her law school education.

It’s another twist in a life journey filled with highs and lows.

Neel was juggling a lot when she was living in Baton Rouge. She was married with kids, working various jobs to make ends meet and attending community college.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005 and forced residents of New Orleans and other heavily-damaged towns to move to higher land.

“My husband and I moved with our children to Houston after Hurricane Katrina,” said Neel. “At the time, my husband worked for a company that was based in New Orleans, and he needed to find a new job.”

After moving, Neel could not afford to continue her education. She had out-of-state resident status and the cost of community college tuition at those rates was too high. So she postponed college.

 Her plans to go back to school were delayed further when she and her husband divorced in 2008. But she didn’t let the change in her marital status stop her from pursuing her education for long.

“By 2009, I was a single mom with two kids, working full time, and attending San Jacinto Community College full time,” Neel said. “I managed to maintain a 3.0 grade point average. It was a very stressful time.”

Things got worse. In June 2010, the company that she worked for shut its doors, leaving Neel unemployed. She turned that misfortune into her motivation.

“I decided at that time to just finish my education,” said Neel. “With my mom’s help, scholarships, and grants I was able to continue going to school.”

She enrolled at University of Houston – Clear Lake and majored in social work. But, after about a year, she transferred to the flagship campus of the UH System and changed her major to sociology and added a minor in political science.

“I wasn’t passionate about social work,” said Neel. “It’s a great field, but not for me. I wanted to have a career where I could help people. I also wanted to be able to financially support my kids and help them prepare for their future.”

The first step in helping her own children was the college transfer. The courses at the main campus were offered during the hours her kids were in school.

Armed with a new focus at a new school, Neel balanced motherhood, schoolwork, and a relationship with a new man as she pursued her degree.

 “UH faculty and staff are so dedicated and engaged with the students,” said Neel. “I was able to bounce ideas off of my instructors, and they often suggested books for me to read based on my interests. As a result, I believe I learned more.”

“Megan is one of the most memorable students I've had in a long time,” said Dr. Shayne Lee, Associate Professor of Sociology. “Her trenchant comments in class always brought energy and fresh perspective to our discussions.”

An internship with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill along with a conversation with a friend who worked in healthcare helped her to decide to apply to UH law school with the goal of working in health care law. As luck – and convenience – would have it, the UH School of Law’s Health care law program is nationally recognized. This year, U. S. News & World Report rankings listed the program as being in the top ten in the country.

“Ultimately, I would love to work in hospital administration and ensure that the Affordable Care Act is properly instituted,” said Neel.

Last June, Neel married her new husband, Justin. In addition to being a mother to a 13 and a nine-year-old, she now has twin 12-year-old step children. The entire family has been supportive of Neel and her educational goals.

“I keep ‘finals food’ in the refrigerator so that there is always something for the kids to eat when I am busy preparing for finals,” said Neel. “My husband helps me study and takes care of the kids so that I can do schoolwork. He says that he is going to retire once I finish law school!”

This summer, after graduation and before she begins law school, Neel is going to take a break. She plans to take her kids on a road trip east on Interstate 10, stopping to sightsee along the way. She hopes the time will allow her to relax because in the fall, she will begin her balancing act all over again.

“She has an impressive mind and a wonderful outlook on life,” said Dr. Lee. “I'm expecting great things from Megan. I know one day I will be able to brag that she was my student.”

- By Monica Byars