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Non-Traditional Student Cotton Finds Direction at Keene State

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Mary Cotton
Mary Cotton

The winter holidays might be over, but that hasn’t stopped Mary Cotton from celebrating each day. A non-traditional Keene State College student from a difficult background that included long battles with mental illness and depression and the use of alcohol and drugs, Cotton, 50, has flourished in an environment many would associate with a younger population.

Cotton voices her gratitude with more than kind words of thanks—she presents people responsible for helping her with artwork she has produced as a Keene State student.

Her “Lemons” painting hangs in her therapist’s office, but the bulk of Cotton’s work can be found in and around the office of Jeanne Hearn, the Assistant Director of the Aspire program. Hearn has played a pivotal role helping Cotton integrate into an academic setting. One of the most noticeable and thought-provoking pieces hangs in the hallway outside the Aspire office—a dream catcher entitled “Ahyoka” (“She Brought Happiness”).

Comprised of 30-plus rolls of hemp, four steel wires cut and welded into different size circles as well as wooded cranberry beads, bones, and feathers, the dream catcher plays homage to her heritage as an American Cherokee.

After a tumultuous path, Cotton arrived at Keene State in 2007. With the help of Pat Halloran, the College’s Director of Academic and Career Advising, Cotton filled out an application for the Women’s Educational Opportunity Grant and met Hearn. A godsend in Cotton’s eyes, Hearn helped her explore a variety of academic routes that led to her decision to be an art major.

Cotton started with a few classes before she was ready for a full load. “I really liked it because it kept me focused and gave me an incentive to do something every day and that really gave me a purpose in life,” she said. “Everybody has always told me I was never going to be anything or accomplish anything, but I did it. I’m not going to lie to you; it’s a challenge, but I found a way to do it.”

Given the latitude to work at her own pace, Cotton has excelled in the classroom. Lynn Richardson, an associate professor and chair of the art department, said Mary’s work inspired other students in the class. “The students responded to her positively,” said Richardson. “When Mary started to work on a large project like the dream-catcher it set the bar for the other students. When they saw her so engaged, the other students started doing the exact same thing.”

“When you come back to school and you have students in class that are your kids’ age, it’s tough,” acknowledged Cotton. “But most of the students were so nice to me. I learned from them and they learned from me.”

Art as Therapy

Despite suffering a setback when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2013, Cotton has made the dean’s list with a 4.0 GPA in five semesters. Cotton uses her art as therapy. “When I’m depressed and feeling hard on myself I paint so when I feel ugly on the inside – I paint something good on the outside,” she said. “It’s very therapeutic and takes me away from things.”

Cotton derives immense satisfaction from not only her own self-fulfillment, but helping others who experienced her same difficulties. Her renaissance has allowed her the opportunity to step back and appreciate how far she’s has come the past few years. Those who have seen that climb back up life’s ladder marvel at her resilience. “Mary is an amazing woman who is an inspiration,” said Hearn. “She comes up with and creates these things that are amazing for people and continuously gives. Nobody spends more time trying to learn than Mary. We check in to make sure she has what she needs, but she is not giving herself the credit that she deserves. She is the one who has been the strong person.”

“Mary has gained tremendous confidence in herself, in her ability as a student and learner. Her ability to speak up for herself and ask for what she needs and what she wants has increased tremendously,” said Halloran. “Yet all through this she has a heart of gold.”

Able to spend time with her two children and six grandchildren, Cotton, who is on track to earn her bachelor’s degree in 2017, has a healthy support system in place. She doesn’t see herself as a role model, but a supporter for those trying to follow her lead. “I look at myself as an advocate, helping others get through it,” Cotton said. “I know I can help people and walk them through the program.”

Cotton hopes to practice art therapy with people with similar backgrounds to her own. “Art is therapeutic and I honestly believe that,” she said. “If they put everything into art, they are going to feel good about themselves. Hopefully, it will give them an opportunity to get a college education and move forward.”

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