Born in Germany with both parents in the United States Navy, Melinda McKew has traveled worldwide to such countries as Italy, Scotland, and Canada with her military family. However, she chose Augusta University to spend most of her time advancing her education — and what a time it has been for her, as AU eventually became a higher education destination for the whole family.
Her father, Ethan McKew, was stationed at Fort Gordon in 2001, and the family lived in South Augusta, where Melinda attended Cross Creek High School. When she was 16, her father passed away. Instead of moving the family again, her mother, Susan, decided to stay in Augusta. Raised by her mother through adolescence and adulthood, she developed a strong bond with her mother, which continued when they were both students at AU.
In 2007, Melinda started her first undergraduate degree in English at AU. She was a first-generation college student. Later, however, she was joined by her mother, who enrolled in the institution pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Melinda’s brother, Jeffrey, enrolled not long after.
“There was at one point in Augusta State history that me, my mom, and my brother were all at school here at the same time,” McKew said. She shared stories of being classmates with her mother and attending English and feminist theories courses together.
McKew’s mother graduated with her first bachelor’s degree in 2014, and she loved her experience at AU so much that she came back for her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2016.
“I used to encourage my mom when she first went back to school because she was really nervous,” McKew said. “We love AU. It’s an open campus, and even though it’s kind of big … it also feels kind of small at the same time, particularly when you get into your specific department.”
Melinda McKew ranked in the top 1% of students who have majored in English, according to Dr. Seretha Williams, Augusta University professor of English. McKew had worked as Williams’ student assistant for women’s studies. She became the president of the Women’s Studies Student Association, and under her leadership, the association’s membership and activism grew exponentially.
In 2011, she graduated with a perfect GPA as class valedictorian. She published her honors thesis, “Sowing the Seeds of Its Own Destruction: The State’s Deployment of the Panoptic Gaze and the Disturbance of State Ideological Functioning in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.”
Williams testified to her talents. “Melinda can write well, do math, and create art. She is a thoughtful writer, a compassionate social justice advocate, and a natural leader. In an era in which students are encouraged to specialize and to make life choices quickly, Melinda has opted for breadth and depth.”
Upon receiving her first bachelor’s degree, McKew attended Georgia State University while working as a tutor and research assistant and serving many internships with nonprofits in the city of Atlanta, such as Planned Parenthood.
She graduated from Georgia State in 2013 with a Master of Arts in Women’s Studies and moved to Texas, where she worked as a specialist and analyst in a civil rights organization called Lambda Legal Defense & Education. It is an LGBTQ and HIV rights organization and an impact litigation group. The organization takes on cases that will create better case law for LGBTQ people living with HIV. During her time there, a case made history in the U.S. when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges.
At the same time she was advocating for the LGBTQ community, McKew also became passionate about prisoner rights and prison law, as Texas has a huge prisoner population. She became convinced of the need to advocate for the rights of the incarcerated. McKew addressed many cases regarding ill treatment and police abuse of prisoners incarcerated for non-violent offenses. As a crisis hotline operator, she managed between 500 and 1,000 intakes per year across a nine-state region. During her time in Texas, she also took courses at Brookhaven College for paralegal studies and studio art.
Even after achieving success in civil rights and working for several years, McKew always thought about becoming a doctor.
“As I started doing more and more work in social justice, I realized that … if I wanted to make the biggest impact in people’s lives, I should be the type of doctor that people really needed.”
Her satisfying experience at AU prompted her to return to Augusta in 2018 to obtain a degree in cellular and molecular biology and prepare for medical studies at the Medical College of Georgia. Unfortunately, it was also around this time that McKew learned her mother was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer.
“I just I couldn’t imagine not being there for my mom,” said McKew, who delayed her application to MCG for a year to take care of her mother through chemotherapy at the Georgia Cancer Center. Her mother’s prognosis was not initially good, and she feared she would lose her within a year.
However, her mother’s great spirit persisted as she was treated by the cancer center team. She has done remarkably well in chemotherapy. Moreover, she even stopped drinking and smoking.
“I’m convinced that my mom is superhuman,” McKew said. “Chemo is nothing in comparison to everything else she has been through.”
McKew’s mother will be on chemo for a long time as the care standards have changed for ovarian cancer. As a result, she doesn’t have to get infusions at the cancer center as frequently. Because of her mother’s improved prognosis, McKew can concentrate on her studies.
Even though she is in class with a newer generation of students, McKew enjoys being with them. People of all ages attend classes together, reminding her that only a few years earlier, she had been the younger student in class with her mom.
Dr. Jennifer Cannon, associate professor of biology, is McKew’s advisor and instructor for the cell biology and endocrinology classes. When asked about McKew, Cannon responded with a smile, saying, “She is such a positive influence and a beacon of energy, despite all the hardship she has had in her life.”
As a non-traditional student who already holds two degrees, Cannon observed that Melinda McKew stood out from her cohort. Cannon found her to be more insightful and mature, and saw that she often took other students under her care.
“One of the things that I noticed, and what I have heard from other professors as well, is that she is always willing to help others in class,” Cannon said. “She is definitely a leader.”
She also attested to McKew’s exceptional work ethic and fearless attitude. Despite a generation gap and the disruption caused by the pandemic, McKew is still at the top of her class.
“She is very inquisitive and asks excellent, piercing questions in her effort to really understand the nuances of any new subject matter,” said Hauger, recalling his experience with her as a thesis committee member for the Honors Program. “I still remember how carefully she worked to develop her thesis abstract fully. Her work in the lab, as well as her presence as a leader, inspired other students to go above and beyond.”
McKew is on the path to finish her second bachelor’s degree and graduate in December. She has received an acceptance letter from the Medical College of Georgia. She will begin her classes as a medical student in summer 2021.
“People talk a lot of how the university has changed and grown a lot, but I’ve always felt really at home,” McKew said. “I’ve always found the professors to be supportive, and I cannot be who I want to be without them. Honestly, this has been a really great experience for me.”