Ever since my children were old enough to go to school, I had preached to them about the importance of doing well in school. I constantly reminded them of great blacks who used education as a tool to fight poverty as well as discrimination.
But for a long time, I could not seem to help myself. I had quit school after the 10th grade, gotten pregnant, become a mother and, shortly thereafter, a wife. When my marriage soured and my husband and I separated, I found myself, at age 19, a single parent with two children, very little money and a 10th-grade education.
My life was empty. I felt I was going nowhere. I had no goals at all. I was turned down for a number of jobs as a cashier and a clerk typist because I did not have enough education.
In frustration, I sought job training. I was accepted into a clerical training program and learned how to type and file. After a year of training, I was hired by the Navy Department as a GS-1 trainee. The money was so low that by the time I paid my bills, I had to borrow bus fare.
Although I soon was promoted to a GS-2 clerk-typist position, I resented that I had not reached my potential. My resentment turned to motivation; I knew my chances for advancement depended on education. And I had a gut feeling that I had the potential to be something great in life--great in the sense that I could like and respect myself.
In 1973, when I was 23 years old, a friend told me about a special program at American University designed to help dropouts and disadvantaged students who otherwise would not have the opportunity to go to college. I was enthusiastic, yet hesitant, because I was afraid of the challenge. But, moved by the hope of becoming a journalist, I passed the written test and was accepted.
My first day on campus, I wondered if I could compete. I started out with an academic discipline course that taught us how to study and how to cope with a new academic environment. Now that getting an education meant more than ever, I began to comprehend the value of education that my grandmother and teachers had stressed to me.
From 1973 until 1977, I worked full time as a youth aide and secretary for the United Planning Organization, a social services agency, and attended classes in the evening, taking up to three courses a semester.
It was a very demanding schedule and more than I had anticipated. But I was determined to finish college at any cost. I did not know at the time that the cost would be not having a social life, and having to spend my weekends studying and caring for my family.
My daughter was 13 years old and still needed my care. That caused me additional stress because I could not give her all the attention that a teen-age daughter needed.
Besides taking responsibility for her younger brother, she helped me wash and cook enough on the weekends for the week. She prepared their meals and, with her brother, kept the apartment in order while I was at school. Many nights they went with me to school, and studied in an empty classroom until about 9:30.
Often, I think back on the nights when my kids would fall asleep on campus and the security guards would help me carry them to the car. Those were the nights that I wanted to give up. I wondered then if the physical and mental pain was worth it. Many nights, exhausted from a full day's work and an evening of classes, I still had to go home and wash and iron our clothes for the next day.
The pressure grew as I progressed in school, but somehow I got through those four years, finished with a 3.5 grade point average, and an associate of arts degree.
In 1977 I was accepted by American University's School of Communications, an even greater challenge. I had to strive harder than most of the students who were responsible only for themselves and many of whom did not have financial worries. This made me even more determined to compete. When my colleagues were receiving Bs and Cs, I pushed for As.
After completing a six-month training program at a local television station as an associate producer for a children's program, I finally began to reap the benefits of my labor. God had given me extra strength to continue, and the financial aid department had given me some extra funds to cover my tuition. I had earned admiration, concern and friendship from my professors, colleagues, peers and family. More importantly, my childhood dream to become a journalist was closer to becoming a reality.
I do not regret my decision to return to school.
My 7 1/2-year struggle to finish college while rearing two children and working full time has helped me to grow.
Most importantly, my children have someone right at home to emulate. Now, when I preach education to them, or when they tell me that they cannot make it through school, I can remind them of my struggle.
Thank God, they have heeded my counsel. My wonderful 18-year-old daughter, Pamela, graduated from high school in May and my son, Nathaniel, 15, will finish junior high school this month.
I graduated recently with a bachelor of arts degree in broadcast journalism.
On my graduation day, my children put their arms around me and the three of us shared my success. My tears were tears of joy. As my son and I walked from the graduation ceremony, he looked at me and said, "All of these years of struggling have finally paid off."