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2013 May 27 - 12:00 am

POV: A Community College Journey: From GED to Ph.D.

I don’t think anyone grows up aspiring to get a GED. I think for the most part we all have this dream of graduating from high school, going to college or work, getting a job, making money, buying a house, having a family, and maybe a dog or two. I had the same dream. But somewhere along the way, life happened.

I am not a teenage statistic. I did not get pregnant or go to rehab. I was fairly normal, I suppose. But a series of events unfolded that eventually snowballed into my dropping out of high school halfway through ninth grade. A ninth-grade dropout doesn’t qualify for many good jobs, so I worked doing what I could to get by. Candy stores, fast food restaurants, and even a blueberry farm where I shook bushes. Surprisingly, I made a decent paycheck shaking blueberry bushes, but the hours were long, the days hot.

Somewhere along the way I found myself living with a colleague at the age of 16. She was a college dropout and we both worked at the mall. We were both lost in life. When my high school friends were planning parties, proms, and dates, I was balancing checkbooks, shopping for groceries, and resting sore feet. And to be honest, I was tired. I was too young to be so tired. And I was tired of the comments. People assumed I had a baby at home, that I was a troublemaker, that I had a learning disability or that I just plain did not care about my education. I loved school I never got in trouble at school. I loved my teachers. I remember watching Robin Williams in the movie “Dead Poets Society,” standing on top his desks screaming “carpe diem” — Seize the Day — with such enthusiasm and love for his students. I wished so badly that I could be like him.

I was also tired of the looks. When you tell people you’re a high school dropout, they either look at you with pity or disgust, as if you are worse than the gum stuck to the bottom of their shoe. I suppose at some point I become tired of the looks and the comments, and I was determined to prove to people that I was more than a blueberry bush-shaker or a hamburger flipper.

So I went to Meridian Community College where I met Browning Rochefort, then director of adult education. She did not look at me as though I was gum on the bottom of her shoe. She looked at me as though I was somebody, that I had potential. She was warm and kind and she made me feel like I could achieve anything. She tested me to see what classes I would need to take to prepare for my GED. I was certain I would need help with math. But to the surprise of both of us, I passed.

Two weeks later, I took the actual test. I remember leaving feel very unsure of myself — worried that I had just wasted precious money that could have been used to pay bills. I left the testing site. I went to work and tried not to think about it again. Then, a manila envelope showed up in my mailbox. And just like that, I felt as though I was a somebody. I got my GED.

Little did I know at that time what impact MCC and Browning would have on me. At age 17, with limited knowledge of the world, I felt like the GED meant I could do anything. I left town for a while. I moved to the Gulf Coast, got a job working at a casino. I soon fell back into the rut of paying bills, balancing budgets and becoming tired all over again. The comments and looks returned. To many people, a GED simply means a “good enough diploma.” Their attitudes reignited that fire within me. I was determined to prove them all wrong. I found myself back at a community college, eager to move to the next chapter of my life. I had no clue what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted a college diploma to hang next to my GED.

After a year on the coast, I longed to go home, so at 19, I moved back to Meridian and found myself back at Browning’s door. She encouraged me to take basic courses, to test the waters in multiple areas to see if I found an area that sparked my interested. Within two years, I graduated from MCC with an associate degree.

The two years I had spent at MCC made me realize that I loved school. I loved learning. I loved my teachers and I still wanted to be the teacher Robin Williams once inspired me to be. I enrolled at Mississippi State University-Meridian, where I went on to earn my BS in elementary education with certifications in English and social science. I was asked to give the keynote address at commencement.

I remember shaking like a leaf the entire time. But now there were three diplomas hanging on my wall. I would spend the next year and a half loving being a third-grade teacher. I had also carved out a niche. I was constantly being asked about technology, due to knowledge gained during a short internship. I would be called out of class to figure out why a monitor would not turn on or a printer would not print.

It was around that time that I realized I loved computers and technology. I knew I did not want to be a networker or programmer, but there was something about computers that drew me in. I found myself enrolled at one of the big-name online institutions, which allowed me to earn my masters degree while still living my day-to-day life. I eventually graduated with a master’s in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in distance education.

I did not fully understand at the time the impact distance education would have on higher education. It is now one of the fastest growing forms of education. Thanks to my master’s degree, I was able to obtain employment at a local university, where I was able to be a part of the implementation of online programs. It was literally love at first sight. I was hooked on education, working with students, working on computers, and being a part of something that was bigger than me.

And thanks to a kindly and supportive dean, I realized the master’s degree was not an end point I could keep going. Just like the GED was not my stopping point, neither was my master’s degree. I could change the way people think of someone with a GED by earning my Ph.D. And so I did. I recently graduated from the University of Alabama with a Ph.D. in instructional leadership with an emphasis in instructional technology, and I have found myself full circle back at MCC working as the director of eLearning. I not only got my collegiate start at a community college. I got my future.

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Q: Do you have an inspirational story showing how community colleges can change lives?
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