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Eckerd College announces bestselling author and child welfare advocate Ashley Rhodes-Courter ’07 as 61st Commencement speaker

By Tom Zucco
Published March 27, 2024
Categories: About Eckerd, Alumni
Woman speaking into cordless microphone

Alumna Ashley Rhodes-Courter became a bestselling author by age 22. Photos courtesy

As a child, Ashley Rhodes-Courter ’07 spent more than nine years in foster care, bouncing around 14 different homes until she was finally adopted at age 12. She later learned that roughly a quarter of her caregivers were already, or eventually became, convicted felons as a result of problems with drugs, alcohol, violence or pedophilia.

“It was not the most ideal of circumstances,” she would later tell an interviewer. “But I was able to find refuge at school. Even though I changed schools at least twice a year until seventh grade, I had teachers who encouraged me to remain dedicated to my academics. No matter what happened, I always knew that I wanted to go to college. I was adopted into a great family in Crystal River [Florida] that also shared my passion for education and advocacy.”

That passion will be on full display on Sunday morning, May 19, when Ashley returns to her alma mater to serve as the speaker at Eckerd College’s 61st Commencement ceremony.

Woman holding up two books

Ashley became a New York Times bestselling author by age 22. She holds a Master of Social Work from the University of Southern California, ran for a Florida State Senate seat at age 26, created and leads a nonprofit organization, has twice been invited to the White House, and is a licensed therapist and former guardian ad litem volunteer. Ashley and her husband, Eckerd honors graduate Erick Paul Smith ’12, have been foster parents to more than 25 children. Today, they are raising two biological children and one adopted child.

Ashley, who graduated with honors from Eckerd, earning a Bachelor of Arts in communication and theatre with minors in political science and psychology, may be best known for her first memoir, Three Little Words (Simon & Schuster, 2008). The book is the heartbreaking yet inspirational story of her time in foster care. The three words? “I guess so.”

When Ashley is called to the lectern that Sunday in May, she plans to address the notion of resiliency. “This cohort of Eckerd graduates had an unbelievable amount of turmoil during their time in college, starting with the pandemic,” she explains.

“They had to shift and adapt, but that’s what a liberal arts education allows us to do. We have the ability and courage to think outside the box and be flexible in an ever-changing world. That’s what Eckerd prepares learners to do.”

And there is another, equally important, benefit, she says. “Eckerd really is a place of family, of connectivity, and of people who support you. I value that so much. After all these years, Eckerd is still a part of my life, and I’m thrilled and honored to be the Commencement speaker.”