Mother-daughter graduates, seated and smiling

December 09, 2021

Mother-daughter duo will graduate together from SIU

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Guests might just find themselves doing a double take, as two women who could almost pass for twins will walk across the stage to claim their diplomas during Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s 2 p.m. commencement ceremonies on Saturday, Dec. 11, at the Banterra Center.

The mother-daughter duo of Dorothy and Ashley Simien of Memphis, Tennessee, have earned a Master of Health Administration and master’s degree in health informatics and information (MHA/MHI) through SIU’s unique dual track program that allows students to earn two master’s degrees concurrently. It has been quite a journey for the pair, and they are excited and proud to be graduating together.

“The day I walk across the stage with my mom will be a day to remember for sure,” Ashley said. “It will be a moment to relive again and again and very special for both of us.”

Paths diverged then merged

The Simiens have both long been interested in the health care field, but they traveled different roads to arrive at their current destination. As a child, Dorothy recalls being inspired by a favorite picture of her great-aunt, Robbie Ealy, wearing a white nursing uniform and white hat. Ealy graduated nursing school in Philadelphia during the segregated era of the 1950s and was proud to be a nurse, motivating Dorothy to look toward a career in the health industry, as did Dorothy’s cousins Geraldine Kinchelow-Grandberry and Laurel Kinchelow, who worked as nursing managers and found the work to be fulfilling.

Dorothy has been working in the floral and beauty industry but decided it was finally time to pursue her dream career. She began taking SIU Extended Campus classes at one of the military base sites and then completed her bachelor’s degree in health care management from the university online in 2012.

Dorothy was impressed with the “quality education” she received, so she was elated to learn of the university’s dual MHA/MHI program.

“I knew SIU was concerned about my success, and I thought the opportunity to pursue two master’s degrees in health care would help me with my long-term goal of owning an assisted living facility, wellness center or medical temporary service.”

Meanwhile, Ashley said she has always had an interest in the health care field and as a young child recalls watching medical shows intently, even the surgical scenes. She completed her bachelor’s degree in management at Park University, her father James’ alma mater, in 2015. She is a currently a surgery scheduler at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.

As she looked toward the future, she pondered a career as a doctor, teacher or nurse and was accepted into the nursing programs at several universities. But she felt her focus shifting toward health care administration.

About that time, Dorothy began speaking to Ashley now and again regarding SIU’s dual degree MHA/MHI program, telling her how much she enjoyed her SIU undergraduate classes. She suggested how nice it would be if both mother and daughter could be Salukis.

“I told her this was an awesome opportunity to receive dual master’s degrees and that she could work in the medical field and have the opportunity to be an entrepreneur while using the business degree she had obtained,” Dorothy said.

A few weeks later, Ashley surprised her mother after dinner by announcing she had decided to attend SIU.

“I was so excited, I shed a few tears,” Dorothy said. “‘You will love it, I promise!’ I told her.”

Taking it online

Dorothy and Ashley Simien both elected to earn their dual degrees totally online, a great option as they are working parents, they said. The program is also offered on-campus in the traditional format.

While taking classes, they’ve been able to continue with their jobs. Dorothy is also currently working on her website, Running on Legacy while pursuing a career as a motivational speaker and writing a novel. Ashley said she’s even found her health care coursework helpful in her current position.

At every step along the way, Dorothy said she and her daughter have found the support they needed at SIU. She said the registration staff and faculty were very professional and helpful and that faculty were always “more than willing to answer any questions or give advice on how to submit papers to publish. I have never had a professor who did not return my calls or respond to my emails. They are encouraging, professional and available for questions and concerns. They are quite memorable and will continue to be a part of my story. The office staff is helpful and knowledgeable about the programs and the tuition is reasonable, too. Even during the pandemic, we have never had any issues.”

Ashley said she appreciated the flexibility online courses provide, even though they are as rigorous as in-person classes. Indeed, she said the difference is just that learning takes place in a virtual classroom.

“Some people have this weird idea that online programs are easy. I personally do not think they are,” she said. “SIU has some amazing professors in this program that provide a lot of information for you to be able to understand the material and also share their own professional experiences and insights.”

Ashley said she’s experienced only one downside to online learning. When she sees emails announcing on-campus activities, she gets a bit envious because it looks like Salukis in Carbondale are having a lot of fun, more than 200 miles away from where she lives, works and studies.

Support at home

The two said they have also appreciated ample backup at home as they pursued their lifelong dreams the last few years. Dorothy said her husband, James, has been her “rock, life coach and career adviser” providing support for all of her endeavors, even when that meant cooking meals or helping with housekeeping while she studied for exams or wrote papers or just listening to her when she needed to talk. He was a big help to his daughter as well, she said.

Dorothy also said her son Mario helped out and she cited as inspiration her grandmother and mother who valued education, having faith in God and moving forward no matter the challenges. Ashley said both of her parents have “have always had my back through my ups and downs.” Ashley’s daughter Elizabeth has been the “biggest cheerleader” for the two and is their reason to keep moving forward, the women said. They are proud to set an example for her as they walk across the stage Saturday during the graduation ceremony for the College of Health and Human Sciences

Creating a legacy

Surprisingly, Dorothy and Ashley weren’t study buddies as they pursued their degrees. However, they did discuss the big picture and their goals for the future.

Dorothy said they are grateful to God for the opportunity to pursue the dual degrees and have enjoyed the program and the chance to grow closer to one another.  She said she is “overwhelmed with joy to have my daughter graduate alongside me. My cousin told me, ‘You are creating a legacy.’ That was not my intention. It just happened, and SIU made it possible.”

SIU faculty members have likewise been impressed with the Memphis mother-daughter duo.

“It has been such an honor to watch this mother-daughter team go through our online MHA/MHI program together,” said Sandra Collins, professor and health care management program director. “Dorothy was so excited to be in the program with her daughter and Ashley’s pride in her mother was always evident.”

Dorothy said she and Ashley plan to use their degrees from SIU’s School of Health Sciences “to better serve the community.”

“We talked about certain health care disparities and how we would like to be part of the solution,” Dorothy said.

Ashley said she’s still exploring exactly what she’ll do but agreed that being a health care entrepreneur sounds interesting.

They hope to open a facility to “introduce prevention and wellness to those who are less fortunate and educate other clinicians on the importance of making the patient/customer more of a priority so patients can trust their local health care physicians to make the best decisions for them. We believe prevention and wellness, combined with informed physicians’ decisions, will help our overall health care system,” Dorothy said.

She intends for the focus of the facility to be on alternative medicine and wellness. “I would like to be an advocate for those who are unable to voice how not having health care affects them,” she said.

Dorothy has one more goal, born from her own experience.

“My most important mission is to speak to women who are having doubts about their ability to improve themselves at any age,” she said. “I can speak from personal experience and encourage them. With the right attitude and tenacity, it can be done!”

Note to editors – Dorothy and Ashley Simien will be attending commencement at 2 p.m. Saturday and will be available for photos, videos or interviews after the ceremony by appointment. To arrange interviews, contact Christi Mathis at or 618-453-6707 by 4:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 10.