How did a pair of sisters from Liverpool, New York, find themselves at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln to pursue their graduate education? It was a mix of opportunity, love and twinning.
And as they graduate with their doctorates Aug. 13 at Pinnacle Bank Arena, twins Megan Cardwell and Marissa Oliver now call Nebraska a second home.
“We have come to feel like native Cornhuskers,” Cardwell said. “Graduating from Nebraska, (we’re) leaving with gifts we never thought we would encounter in this life.”
Back in 2016, as Cardwell and Oliver were preparing to finish their undergraduate degrees at separate schools, Oliver found Nebraska through a unique opportunity doing network analysis for the Research Experience for Undergraduates in the Minority Health Disparities Initiative.
“It was an amazing experience, and when I started, I wasn’t thinking I wanted to go to grad school,” Oliver said. “I hadn’t seen much representation like myself. I always thought graduate school was a place for students whose parents had PhDs. But I started the internship, and saw people like me and I felt like I belonged. I started learning about graduate school through the program, and they were really helpful. That program and my mentor (Dan Hoyt) were really integral in Megan and I coming to Nebraska.”
Oliver had also met someone while in Lincoln, and they kept in touch as she finished her final year of undergrad studies. The relationship was pulling her back to Nebraska.
Cardwell wasn’t so sure at first. She hadn’t particularly enjoyed her undergraduate years, and like her sister, Cardwell didn’t really know what graduate school would and could entail, but Oliver asked her to make a phone call.
“She said, ‘what do you have to lose,’” Cardwell said. “So, I had a conversation with Jordan Soliz, and he became my mentor, my adviser and my driving force in many ways, but what really drove me to coming to Nebraska and giving it a shot was that Marissa and I had been apart for four years. It had been one of our dreams to live together as adults.”
Having been separated during their undergraduate years, the twins also both felt the pull to be in the same place, at the same time, again.
“We are super close,” Cardwell said. “Then we were separated for the first time for four years and had a lot of difficult things happen to us where we weren’t there to support each other in a physical space, and that was really, really difficult. Being able to be in the same room and giggle and just laugh — we feel better when we’re together. I thought this might be our only shot to really live on our own, together, and live this twin sitcom thing.”
Oliver joined the department of sociology and researched socialization among Black families around police and policing, and Cardwell joined communication studies, and studied multi-ethnic, multi-racial identity groups. While their paths diverged slightly, they crossed over many times, too, in classes together, and through shared friends and colleagues — sometimes to the confusion of those around them.
“Both as instructors, and as students, we get mistaken for each other on campus all the time,” Oliver said. “We kind of feel invested in both groups of students because of it. As kids, we never switched places or anything, but it was always fun for those situations to naturally happen. Our voices, when we’re in the same room as adults, sometimes freak people out, because we sound exactly the same.”
They lived together for a few years before Oliver married the same man she met as an REU student, and Cardwell moved in with her partner, but their experience living together as adults was priceless.
“I think we were really able to refill our buckets again after feeling depleted for a while, and experiencing that autonomy we had for the first time, together,” Oliver said. “It was confidence-building to see each other grow into adults, and explore and do things together. It really did feel like a sitcom sometimes, but the thing I’ll remember most is, it was so much fun.”
It wasn’t always lighthearted, though. The year 2020 was marked first by a global pandemic, and then the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others by police and the ensuing protests. Aside from being personally affected and having spent time already in these spaces with their research, Cardwell and Oliver were also in the position of being educators and mentors to Black students.
“In the spring of 2020, there were already so many changes… how do I manage this class and give grace to what we’re experiencing right now, but also provide an educational experience?” Cardwell said. “But everything hitting at once was really tough. We leaned on each other a lot, just tears and fear.”
“There were feelings of wanting to support students, and there was also fear, extreme fear for ourselves and for others of what they might have to encounter, and what they did encounter,” Oliver added. “It was really all-consuming in those moments of it, and sometimes — a lot of times — during that summer, especially, our buckets welled over quite often and it was really hard.”
They leaned on each other, and their colleagues, and the relationships that had foisted them up for many years continued to sustain them.
“I got so much direct mentorship and love and support,” Cardwell said. “Everyone that I’ve worked with at Nebraska has been so willing to help me. The position I had in the Office of Diversity, I only had for one year, but all the people who had only known me a short amount of time took the time to invest in me, and that’s what Nebraska is, or has been in my personal experience.”
“I would 100 percent agree,” Oliver said.
Cardwell and Oliver’s paths are diverging again with graduation. Cardwell has accepted a position as an assistant professor at Villanova University, in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Oliver has gone to the private sector with a remote position as a quantitative research associate with Fors Marsh Group. She will move with her family to Utah following graduation.
For both, Nebraska will always be where they found themselves.
“It’s been just a profound place of growth for us,” Cardwell said. “I wish that I could kind of stay in Lincoln forever, because it’s the place where I became myself.”
Oliver agreed, “Lincoln, Nebraska, was the exact right place that Megan and I both needed to figure out who we were, what we wanted. It’s been both finding pockets where we belong and stretching where we perceived we don’t. I think both experiences have been super valuable.”