Creative Pathways to Discovery

Written by: 
Amanda Yanowski
Niki and Marsha Dash
Niki Dash, dean of the College of Health and Public Service, with her late mother, Marsha.

Niki Dash's journey to become dean of UNT's College of Health and Public Service began when her mother, who did not attend college herself, opened the door to higher education. Now, Dash and her husband, Carlos Armas, have created the Marsha Dash Study Abroad Endowed Scholarship to honor Dash's mother and offer life-changing experiences to first-generation college students.

When Dash thinks about her childhood, she recalls how hard her mother worked as a single parent so her three children would discover they could accomplish anything. Although Marsha, who passed away in 2019, did not have the financial resources to pay for Dash and her siblings' college tuition, she taught them that education was a way to change the trajectory of their lives.

"She told us from very young ages that education was the pathway to a different future than she had," Dash says. "She taught us that we could overcome barriers and accomplish whatever we set our minds to achieve."

As a college student, Dash worked to support herself, but her mother pushed her to learn how to navigate the waters of financial aid and scholarships. Marsha also sent care packages filled with homemade cookies and ramen soup, did her children's laundry when they visited home and gave them the tools to be successful -- like encouraging their drive to do more and be everything they wanted to be.

That support led Dash to pursue graduate school, inspired by a desire to understand the effect of destruction from Hurricane Andrew on fellow residents of Miami. She then put her skills to work through a brief career in emergency management with FEMA, but her passion for research on how disasters impact communities led her to her true calling -- earning a Ph.D. so she could translate her enthusiasm to academia.

Later in life, Marsha's children found ways to thank her for the paths she cleared and doors she opened for them. Notably, Dash's brother, who works in the cruise industry, flew Marsha to Switzerland and took her on an adventure aboard one of his company's ships.

Leaving the United States for the first time and experiencing other cultures had a major impact on Marsha.

"It was an experience she talked about often. I was inspired by her excitement and have spent a lot of time thinking about how life-changing experiences like international travel are out of reach for those with fewer financial resources," Dash says.

It's easy to understand why, when Dash wondered how to honor Marsha's life, she saw study abroad scholarships as a place where her own life's work connected with her mother's commitment to education and excitement for the little travel she was able to experience in her life.

As a dean at UNT, Dash has a unique perspective on the impact that scholarships have on students' lives. A study abroad scholarship will not only celebrate her mother's legacy, but it also will let students who might otherwise have limited access see the world in different ways.

For Dash, this scholarship is about expanding opportunities for students facing financial obstacles and giving them a broader, more global connection through travel.

"My biggest hope is that students get a view of different cultures and that being able to take advantage of a study abroad opportunity helps open their perspective to all the variations that are out there in the world," Dash says.

Dash is excited about the ways in which study abroad programs teach students more about their fields of study. Like other colleges at UNT, the College of Health and Public Service offers service-oriented study abroad opportunities that allow students to explore their discipline in different contexts -- like studying social work in England, criminal justice and addiction studies in Portugal or evacuations and emergency communications in South America. These enriched academic experiences enable students to see the world through a wider lens.

"As someone who studies disasters, I know them really well in this Americanized context," Dash says. "I know how the federal government works with disasters, but I want students to see how that might work in a country that doesn't have the same resources or governmental structures. I want them to go in, develop that context, tie it to their degree and then take that with them into their future careers."

Dash knows that sometimes, in the moment, students can't see how what they're doing outside of the classroom has a long-term effect on how they see the world, but she hopes giving access to study abroad programs will encourage more students to imagine themselves in places and situations they might not have otherwise.

"I'm glad I ended up where I am, but who knows the other pathways of discovery I would have had if I had been able to take advantage of something like study abroad," Dash says.