From welfare to breadwinner: One single mother’s journey back to college

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Stephanie Jackson is a paralegal for the Public Safety section of the Office of the Attorney General of Georgia. While there’s no easy path to such a position, Stephanie’s was more difficult than most.

On her eighteenth birthday she enrolled at the University of Montevallo. She admits, she wasn’t the best student in high school, but her ACT scores were good enough to get her into a small school with a scholarship for tuition.

The first few semesters were tough ones, and she quickly lost traction, focus and interest. Not sure what she wanted to do with her life, Stephanie simply was not ready for college.

So, she quit.

Not long after, she decided to return, this time at a junior college. And after completing one semester, she transferred to the University of Alabama in Huntsville to live with her then-boyfriend. Still struggling, Stephanie decided to leave college again when her degree program was dropped.

More than two decades would pass before she’d go back again.

During those years in between, Stephanie got married, had two sons—one in 2001, another in 2004—worked office and retail jobs, volunteered for the PTA and got divorced.

She suddenly found herself unemployed, under-educated and unmarried. She was a single mom living on welfare.

“No employer was willing to pay a living wage for a family of three to have me do their laundry or their grocery shopping,” Stephanie said.

She decided then to set two goals: take care of her sons now and take care of herself for a lifetime.

Slowly, but surely, Stephanie started to pick up the pieces of her life and put them together, perhaps for the very first time.

“I bartered bookkeeping services for our haircuts. I cleaned houses for friends of friends,” she said. “I had to re-evaluate and re-invent my skillset.”

As she was doing that, Stephanie started to realize some things about herself: she was creative; resourceful; analytical. She loved research and writing.

As she made these discoveries, she began to look into long-term careers that might align with these passions and skills. Thus, she decided to become a paralegal.

Not exactly sure where to start, Stephanie spent some time at www.GoBackMoveAhead.org to learn more about programs and institutions offering online classes near her home.

Fortunately, she found one. Two, actually: one at a private, for-profit institution; the other at Georgia Piedmont Technical College. At Piedmont, she was eligible for financial aid, including the Pell grant. The cost difference between the two schools was upwards of $15,000. She was also able to transfer hours from her previous undergraduate courses.

She enrolled at Georgia Piedmont and was able to take most of her classes online or in the evening.

“Class times were flexible enough that I could work part-time, go to school and still be available for my two young boys,” Stephanie said.

She was balancing three jobs, a full-time course load and two children. But she was motivated. Driven. Determined. She found exactly what she was looking for—exactly what she needed—at Piedmont.

“Technical college gave me the practical knowledge and training to use immediately in my rapidly-changing field,” she said. “I was able to use what I learned in the classroom and apply it to the professional field of law.”

Stephanie has since landed an internship with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia, working with legislators at the Capitol to address issues of privacy and technology, criminal justice reform and voters’ rights; and currently serves as a paralegal for the state’s Attorney General’s office as she works toward completing her bachelor’s degree.

According to Stephanie, the second time around was easier than the first, not only because she had to go back, but because she was ready and more mentally prepared to complete the coursework.

She’s back in the swing of things now, but still feels an enormous amount of pressure being a single mom, working and going to school.

It’s certainly not easy, but Stephanie has proven that it isn’t impossible, either.

When told that she had the talent and ability to change the world, Stephanie answered with a simple, inspiring response.

“I have never wanted to change the world. I want only to help teach people how to make small changes and pick up the pieces of their own lives so that they can change their own.”

Stephanie went back. And so can you.

Find out how we’re making the first step back to college easier at www.GoBackMoveAhead.org.