Birthday Girls at 35

Stephonjia Sudduth, Maggie Hilliard, and Suzi Flory, have agreed to talk with one of our reporters at various points over the past few decades, beginning when they were eight. They talked with us again in the last year, at age 35. This is an excerpt of those stories, from “35 Years of Minnesota Women.”

Stephonjia Sudduth

At 15: Sudduth lived in north Minneapolis and competed in high school gymnastics. Her goal was to go to college in Atlanta enroute to becoming a surgeon.

At 25: She was focused on recovering from Hurricane Katrina, as a student at Xavier University in New Orleans. She was working on getting into med school, and considering attending a six-year program in Cuba.

At 30: She was living in Havana, Cuba, studying all of her classes in Spanish. Her plan was to return to the U.S. in 2019 to start a residency program, become a surgeon, and open a practice to provide preventive care in the Black community. She wanted to play a role in helping people take better care of their lives. 

Sudduth graduated in July 2019 and returned to the United States to begin a residency program.

As she told reporter Kassidy Tarala, her time in Cuba “taught me that I need to be able to meet people where they are at in their lives. When we converse with people and engage with them we expect people to understand us, but we don’t take the time to look and really see them,” Sudduth says. “We need to have patience. Living in another country taught me that patience is huge.”

In Cuba, each community has its own doctor who lives nearby and is available for house calls. The same doctor will typically see the same patients throughout their lives, starting from birth. There is also a focus on women and children that Sudduth says she hopes to bring to her healthcare practice in the U.S.

“Women are taken very well care of. During pregnancy, they receive checkups every few weeks and house visits to ensure they’ are living in healthy conditions,” she explains. “[The doctor] knows you as an individual first, then as a pregnant woman, and then after that.”

Maggie Hilliard

At 15: A freshman at Waconia High School, Hilliard played volleyball, basketball, ran track, and was in marching band. To prepare for her future on her own, she made a list. “I have to take care of myself, get a job, make money, and be organized. I’m going to be grown up so fast. I’ll be driving this time next year. Everything changes so much when you’re in high school. It just kind of freaks me out.”

At 25: Using online technology, she was working in New York City to make books available to a wired generation, after graduating with a 4.0 GPA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was focused on maintaining ties with family and friends. “It’s easy to get stuck just participating in life. I feel lucky to be this age, even though there are a ton of things going wrong with the world. I’m optimistic about opportunities for people my age to solve the problems we have now.”

At 30: She had taken a Caribbean vacation to cope with turning 30. She was still loving life in Manhattan, working at an ad agency. “My eight-year-old self never would have predicted I’d live in New York, but I’m glad to be where I am. If I could talk to [that girl], my only advice would be ‘keep calm and carry on.’ You can’t ever tell what life will throw at you, so I’m a big believer in learning to go with the flow.”

Since then, she had become a senior partner, global strategy director, at MediaCom, and moved from a walk-up studio to a 14th floor one-bedroom apartment in a doorman building. “A serious upgrade that I truly appreciate every single day,” she told Tarala.

Hilliard says one of the most important lessons she’s learned is to have confidence and faith in herself. “I have learned this lesson a few times, sometimes the hard way, and it is a continual process of learning to trust myself,” Hilliard says. “But both in personal situations and at work, it’s so important and can make a huge difference in getting to the outcomes you want.”

Suzi Flory

At 15: Flory had recently taken a 15-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area with five other women. “It was kind of my independent search to learn who I was. Being out in nature, I felt really at peace with myself.” At Central High School in St. Paul, she was in marching band, in cross country, track, and holding a job. Getting her homework done was sometimes overwhelming.

At 25: She and her mother had gone rock climbing and skydiving. While studying abroad in Germany, her father was ill. It helped her see the value in family and friends. She was working to train youth program coordinators for Campfire USA. She graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland. “I think it’s important to be creative and open and exploratory. I’m in a stage where I’m curious about what’s to come. If I run into something that slows me down, that just gives me the strength to power through it.”

At 30: After completing a master’s in public health at the University of Minnesota, she returned to Oregon to move in with her long-term boyfriend. She was managing an adolescent sexual health program to support healthy decision-making and relationships. “The more I look for it, the more I see the many successful women around me. So many women serve as an ever-present source of resilience and compassion. They’ve taught me that perseverance and faith are some of the greatest strengths.”

When Tarala caught up with her, Flory was married to her long-term boyfriend. “After 10 years of being in a committed relationship, my husband and I were married in 2016 — but not without first overcoming a series of life-threatening health conditions that continued to spring up about five years ago, including a bilateral pulmonary embolism,” Flory says. “We fought hard to keep him alive and were overjoyed when our wedding day finally arrived, having triumphed against what felt like all odds.”

Flory works as a grants officer with the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in Oregon. “We believe that healthcare is a human right and do not turn anyone away for their lack of health insurance or inability to pay for health services,” she says.

Since 2015, Flory says one of the most important lessons she has learned is “the importance of choosing self-care and love over conflict and anger.”

Flory says she’s learned how to choose love over fear, and she encourages others to find faith, especially in the middle of a tough time.

She told Tarala in early 2020, “We can always look inwards to cultivate gratitude and resilience that helps keep us on this path,” she says. “And keep faith. Women will remember 2016 and we will put up one hell of a fight!”