I got laid off from my job at a mortgage business a few years ago. As a single mom, that news could have been a breaking point. I absolutely needed to make money, but dreaded the thought of losing another decade to a career that just wasn’t my passion. What I really wanted was to be a licensed clinical social worker and work in the “restorative” part of the criminal justice system.  I wanted to counsel women who have been in prison to help them reintegrate into society.

So I did something crazy. I applied to college.

On May 6, I’ll graduate from Winthrop University with a B.A. in sociology, focusing on criminology. I’ve earned my degree while working part-time jobs and being mom to 8-year-old Johnathan, who has cheered me all the way. Next, I’m hoping to go to graduate school for a master’s degree in social work, the credential I need to be a therapist.

It’s felt a little strange to sit in class with 18-year-olds. I couldn’t have done it without help from the mom posse I met through a local non-profit called the ANSWER Scholarship. ANSWER awards scholarships to local moms earning a four-year degree in any field or two-year degree in nursing. They can be single or married, but need a boost to help them get that degree when they aren’t the traditional age for it.

The scholarship money is great. But the group’s mentorship program has also been vital for me. ANSWER pairs each recipient with a mentor.  Being able to pick up the phone or text Sonya, my mentor, really helped when a crisis hit at school or home and I thought I just couldn’t do it anymore. When I worried I’d have to quit college because of finances, Sonya encouraged me to stay in the game.

Thirteen local moms received ANSWER scholarships for the 2016-2017 school year, and we all meet in a group along with our mentors once a month to share our stories. It’s wonderful to be with other women who are experiencing the same things I’m experiencing. We laugh or cry about the challenges; we celebrate the victories. The mentors are there to provide moral support and some words of wisdom.  We get professional development tips, too, about networking and other career-related skills.

After high school, I had earned an associate degree in criminal justice, but it turned out to not be enough. I went back to school partly to instill in my son the value of education no matter your age. He asks about what I’m studying, gets As and Bs in school, and talks about going to college. He knows that higher education opens the door to so much more.

I had a tough early life growing up in south Florida. I’m a survivor of a sexual assault and I lost both my parents at a fairly early age.  But I always believed there was some greater purpose for me and I could turn the adversity into something positive. Thanks to my faith in God, support from  my mom friends, and my own hard work, I’m graduating with honors.  When I walk across that stage in my cap and gown, I’ll step towards the life I’ve always wanted

Photo Credit: Jackie Bithorn

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