Mother-daughter duo

Mother-daughter duo Valerie (left) and Grace Miller (right) pose for a portrait outside Tate Student Center on August 1, 2019. Both are attending University of Georgia this year simultaneously, Grace for her undergraduate degree in social studies education and Valerie for her masters degree in social work. (Photo/Caroline Barnes)

Valerie Miller-Schmertz and Grace Miller have a lot in common. Both have similar voices and have the same quick sense of humor. The two, who are from Marietta, even answered “yes” in unison when asked if they’re close. 

This fall, both mother and daughter are starting school together as students at the University of Georgia.

Their journey to become classmates at UGA actually began at a different school. It was 18 years ago when Miller-Schmertz was moving into her dorm at Georgia State University in Atlanta, four months pregnant with Grace, her first child. 

It took Miller-Schmertz eight years to complete her undergraduate degree in psychology at GSU. She was a single parent and worked part-time jobs which allowed her to bring Grace to work. Miller-Schmertz even toted her along for night classes.

Sharing the journey

In 2018, Miller-Schmertz decided to go back to school for her master’s degree in social work and applied to UGA on a whim. She started last fall, around the time Grace was beginning her senior year of high school and getting ready to apply to colleges, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest.

However, when Grace was waitlisted at her top-choice school, she began considering her other options more seriously, including the prospect of going to UGA.

The cost of out-of-state tuition worried Miller-Schmertz. But after applying to several colleges in other parts of the country, Grace came around to the prospect of becoming a Bulldog and eventually put down a deposit for a space at UGA. 

“Obviously, I love her and want to be around her constantly, but I have to restrain from acting like that,” Miller-Schmertz said. “I never thought she would choose the same place.”

Although Miller-Schmertz didn’t plan to go to school with her daughter, the idea doesn’t bother Grace. 

“It somehow just seemed normal to me,” Grace said. “Not like normal for any parent, but normal for my mom to be at my school once a week.”

“I want her to grow, experience life and develop her own boundaries and habits.”

Valerie Miller-Schmertz, mother

 It helps they have an open and honest relationship. With Miller-Schmertz’s background in psychology, Grace feels communication has always been an important part of their family dynamic. She also said her mom has good parental instincts and will know when she needs space.

Negar Fani, Miller-Schmertz’s best friend and an assistant professor at Emory University in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, recognizes and admires her parenting skills.

“It’s been an incredible thing to share about her journey as a young mother and to see her parenting Grace growing up,” Fani said. “I’m just proud of Valerie and I’m proud of Grace and I just love that they’re sharing this journey together.” 

Miller-Schmertz’s husband and Grace’s stepfather, Stefan Schmertz, has been in Grace’s life since she was 6 years old. He met Miller-Schmertz while attending GSU. Schmertz thinks her time at GSU as a single parent is why the mother-daughter duo are so close now. 

“They were kind of all each other had with Valerie being a single mom for a long time,” Schmertz said.

Next phase

The mother-daughter duo have made tentative plans to get lunch together on Mondays, the one day Miller-Schmertz commutes from Marietta, to Athens for class. However, she told Grace she’ll understand if that doesn’t end up happening regularly.

Grace admits that, in the end, she might end up needing visits from her mom more than her mom might need them. But one clear boundary is being made — Miller-Schmertz won’t be staying in Grace’s dorm room. 

Miller-Schmertz understands Grace might end up experimenting and making mistakes in college, but she isn’t going to hang around campus trying to prevent her daughter from living an independent life.

“For me, I want her to grow, experience life and develop her own boundaries and habits,” Miller-Schmertz said. “It’s her choice and her body and her life, and I will be here to hopefully inspire that assessment.”

As the beginning of classes for the semester approaches, so does the next phase of the mother-daughter relationship.

“They’ve been so close throughout their life and they’ve had a special journey together,” Schmertz said. “It feels really fitting for them to have this year together. That’s just a neat part of their story.”

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