Twenty students. Twenty stories.
The challenges and triumphs of the Class of 2020.
They come from rural towns and inner cities. They enrolled in college at 18, at 28, and at 48 years old. Some received full scholarships, others worked full-time jobs, and many became the first member of their family to earn a degree. We’ve gathered the stories of 20 new graduates to celebrate their achievements and remind us why it’s so important for schools to eliminate barriers and create pathways that help students flourish. Though few of these graduates were able to celebrate by walking across a stage or throwing their caps in the air, their victories give us hope as we finally turn our attention to the deep and long standing racial inequities that have made the journey too difficult for too many.
In the face of an ongoing pandemic and economic crisis, the threats to students and universities will only increase: Budgets will shrink, online learning will pose challenges for those who can’t afford a computer or a reliable internet connection, and many students will struggle with basic necessities such as food and housing. Our work has never been more important. We must continue to fight for policies and practices that replace the broken systems of the past and create justice and opportunity for all.
Below, we highlight four students who exemplify the ambitious and resilient Class of 2020. You can meet their peers – the full 20for20 – here.
DURING HER SENIOR YEAR at Houston County High School in Erin, Tennessee, Nicole McGlashing considered going to college in Kentucky. But when her mother died months before the start of her freshman semester, she decided to enroll in Austin Peay State University in nearby Clarksville to stay close to her younger sister. Six years later, after following a two-year detour to Indiana for her husband’s work, Nicole returned to graduate from Austin Peay with a B.S. in Psychology. This May, Nicole became the first generation of her family to earn a degree. She now lives in Clarksville with her husband and her younger sister, who both attend classes at Austin Peay. And Nicole is returning to her alma mater to pursue a graduate degree in the fall.
We’ve all read the media reports of the young adults who always knew they’d attend college and who expected a job to be waiting for them in June. This is a different story—the story of the new graduates who never expected to attend college. Who weren’t certain they’d ever graduate. Who weren’t even sure they’d ever earn more than an hourly wage. Although they are facing the same circumstances as their peers, they do not feel sorry for themselves—in fact, the students we spoke with are surprisingly optimistic. And they all serve as reminders that the label “nontraditional” describes a surprising number of students including first-generation students, single parents, and those with disabilities. Their stories are unique, but their challenges are not. While each student exhibited fierce determination, their paths illustrate the many ways the schools themselves made a difference—through tailored course loads, help from an advisor in the Office of Student Support Services, study tips from a teacher-turned-mentor, or a loaner laptop in a crunch. And after navigating the twists and turns along their journeys, they all believe they are better prepared for the future that awaits them, whatever that future is.
Nicole’s journey to a 4-year degree actually took 6 years, as a result of personal decisions to support her family. According to Nicole, the school was with her every step of the way. Small but important interventions – like a credit-bearing statistics course with built-in remediation – helped her build confidence early while moving her closer to her goals. And when she and her husband got married and moved to Indiana for his career, her advisors made sure she walked away with an associate’s degree—an achievement that would’ve been impossible if she’d missed a few steps in those early semesters. Nicole had always planned to finish her degree sooner or later, and the connections she’d forged with Austin Peay advisors increased those odds: When her husband was offered a job managing a grocery store back in Clarksville two years later, Nicole picked up where she’d left off, completing her degree, while working as an administrative assistant alongside the advisors who had cheered her return. In the fall, she’ll begin pursuing her Master of Science in Leadership.
“My parents did their best to raise me, and encouraged me to do my best in school, but they had some personal issues [that held them back],” says Nicole. “For me, it was never, ‘I’m gonna go to college because all of my family members did’—it was, ‘I need to go to college because I need to do better than everyone else around me.’”
Nicole’s younger sister, Sierra, provided her with plenty of motivation, too.
“There were times where I struggled at school, and thought, ‘I don’t know if this is right for me—I’m just not sure I can do this,’ and I would just think about her—and that really helped me push past those barriers,” says Nicole. “I wanted her to see that despite our circumstances, we can be successful and we can do what we set out to do, even though no one else in our family did.” Today, that younger sister is a sophomore at Austin Peay, studying social work, and walking campus with a lot more confidence than her older sister had at the same age.
Like Nicole, DelShawn Fowler is also a first-generation college grad who didn’t know what to expect when he arrived on campus, and had little idea of the career options he might pursue. He admits to changing his major more than a few times, but throughout his entire journey the focus was always on biology and the sciences—topics he explored in depth thanks to Harris-Stowe State University’s purpose-first approach.
DelShawn had always planned to enlist in the Navy when he completed high school in Ferndale, Michigan, but his involvement in Detroit’s Midnight Golf changed his course. Teens enrolled in the afterschool program hit the links in the early evenings, and between the driving and putting, they learn networking and public-speaking skills. They also get to hear from professionals like Dr. Dwaun Warmack, the former president of Harris-Stowe, in Missouri. Meeting Dr. Warmack piqued DelShawn’s interest, so when Midnight Golf set up visits to several college campuses, he made the trip to the St. Louis campus, which immediately felt like home. DelShawn was accepted to the university and participated in the school’s Summer Bridge program, which helped ease the anxiety he faced his first few weeks on campus.
When asked to recall one or two HSSU educators who made a difference in his life, DelShawn quickly rattles off half a dozen names, from Sabrina Brown, his work-study supervisor, to Dr. Benjale Bailey at student support services. From day one on campus, DelShawn was interested in using medicine to help his community, and always assumed he’d become a doctor or a nurse. But after an internship at Millipore Sigma and plenty of talks with Dr. Bailey, he learned of dozens of career options from medical research to public health advocacy. In May, DelShawn graduated magna cum laude with a Biology degree in 4 years. Now he’s weighing his options for the future, from pharmaceutical sales to a Master of Public Health or a Master of Business Administration—and he’s prepared for all of the above.
“A lot of my family members had tried college but didn’t finish, so I feel like I’ve broken a generational cycle,” he says. “I have cousins and younger siblings who’ve been accepted into college, and seeing what I’ve done in school seems to be motivating them, and that makes me feel like I’ve already made a difference.”
A degree was important to me because
A degree was important to me because
“I worked with children in underserved communities and promoted education to prevent them from making poor choices, similar to the ones I made as a child. In doing so, I realized that I could not promote education without actually having one.”
“It was important to me to show my sister and brothers and my peers that we can do anything and everything we put our minds to—education is key.”
“My parents always told me how a degree would make all the difference between having a job and having a career.”
“I wanted to expand my worldview and learn to see things from different angles.”
“I knew I’d be the first male in my family to do so, beating a lot of statistics, making my parents proud, and setting tone for my siblings and other family members who have not completed college yet.”
What I’d tell an incoming freshman
What I’d tell an incoming freshman
“Try to find ways in which what you’re learning applies directly to your life. Make use of all the free resources available to help you succeed. ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS.”
“Be mentally prepared. Don’t doubt yourself. Make decisions on your degree path with tact, patience and support. Take advantage of the support systems that are accessible to you. Enjoy the process. And don’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed.”
“College is all about balance. You’ll learn that time management is critical—and if you master it early, it will take you a long way. Have fun, but be sure to prioritize the important things first.”
Biggest hurdle overcome
Biggest hurdle overcome
“As a first-generation college student, my biggest hurdle was impostor syndrome. I often felt that I wasn’t capable of succeeding in college and had a lot of self doubt. I overcame this obstacle by finding mentors on campus who truly inspired, supported, and empowered me. As a result, I turned that doubt into opportunities for growth and developed myself to be a student leader in my campus community.”
Juan Robles Nava
“Becoming a father and balancing my life and education at such a young age. With help of my mother and sister and Allah I was able to continue to work toward greatness.”
“Being away from my family back home in Detroit. I overcame this hurdle with the help of a loving institution that took me in as a family and kept me motivated to graduate on time.”
Favorite required reading
Favorite required reading
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant
The Everpresent Origin by Jean Gebser
Keepin’ It Real: School Success Beyond White and Black by Prudence L. Carter
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Possession by A. S. Byatt
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Biggest difference between me then & now
Biggest difference between me then & now
“I feel like I am a man now.”
“I’ve learned that being a leader isn’t about a title. It’s doing the small things to show that you care, being selfless, admitting your mistakes, inspiring others to be their best selves, and seeing adversity as a chance to grow.”
“Communication is the key. My freshman year I was scared to speak to anyone because of what people would think of me and my own personal scars—until someone once told me everyone has scars, some people just hide them better.”
“My self-esteem. I was lost in many ways, and didn’t know who I wanted to be. Today, I’m more confident and better able to use my knowledge and my abilities. Now I am a resilient Blackfeet woman who knows where she has been and where she wants to go.”
The Right Support
Thanks to the guidance and support Blayton Williams received from one of his mentors at Lamar Community College, he didn’t miss a step on his journey from high school to community college to a full scholarship at a four-year university.
After helping his basketball team clinch a state title in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Blayton heard from some D2 colleges, but no D1 coaches came calling. So he decided to find a community college where he could improve his game. Three coaches from Lamar Community College in Colorado came to his house, sat on his couch, and talked to his mom in person, and that level of interest quickly persuaded Blayton that Lamar was ready to invest in his future.
Like many students, Blayton’s biggest struggles came from balancing classes with everything else—in his case, basketball. He recalls more than a few late-night bus rides after away games, including a trip back from Nebraska, when the team arrived in Lamar at 4:00 am. Blayton was in his seat for his 8:00 am class, because he refused to use basketball as an excuse.
His drive to perform in the classroom also led to one of the strongest relationships he had with any of the teachers at Lamar: history instructor Kelly Emick. “In one of my first classes with Mrs. Emick, we had to memorize 50 countries and their capitals, and I just bombed the test, so I knew something had to change,” he says. “I went to Mrs. Emick and asked her about different studying strategies. Ever since then, she’s helped me with anything I needed, before class, after class—she was a lot more than a teacher to me.” Indeed, she was a mentor and an informal counselor who reviewed all of Blayton’s course selections to ensure that every credit would transfer to whatever four-year college he went on to attend. Because he found a teacher willing to extend “student support” well beyond the Office of Student Support Services, Blayton will be a junior at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, when he takes the court at a D1 school, just like he’d always planned.
A Clear – and Flexible – Path to Completion
Sondra Glovan had always had a thing for photography, but she gave it up years ago, after too many people told her it wasn’t “practical” enough. But as she grew older, she realized that passion wasn’t going away. So she enrolled in Pikes Peak Community College to pursue an associate’s degree in photography—a journey that would have been unlikely without flexible class scheduling that allowed her to work full-time as a certified nurse’s assistant, caring for clients in their homes, in between classes. During her second year, she lost both of her parents in less than two months, and still managed to earn her degree on time. But she didn’t do it alone: After some personal conflicts with one of her instructors, she reached out to the school’s student support services, which was the beginning of a close relationship with Sharon Hogg, one of the school’s associate deans.
“Sharon was a big part of my life, taking me under her wing and following my progress in all my classes,” says Sondra. “She was a mentor and a cheerleader, whether I needed advice or just needed a hug, she was always there. When my dad passed away, she told me, ‘You’ve got this—you can do this. We’ll understand if you need to stop for a while, but we all know your dad would’ve wanted you to finish your degree.’ And she was right.”
When the school’s marketing department sought a photographer to take portraits and document school events, Sondra got the gig, and took advantage of every opportunity to bolster her growing portfolio: Her images have been seen in hundreds of brochures, on the school’s website, and on billboards advertising Pikes Peak Community College throughout the region. Sondra has already parlayed that experience into photo assignments for her local church, and senior portraits for the commercial photo agency Extravagant Images, more than many experienced freelance photographers can say, given the economic downturn.
When COVID-19 closed the school and classes were forced online, Sondra and her classmates lost access to campus photo studios and sophisticated lighting rigs, so Sondra purchased her own lights and turned her kitchen into a studio, telling her husband and daughter they’d have to figure out where to eat for a few days. She didn’t get to walk the stage and has yet to receive her diploma—because the school’s printshop remains closed—but Sondra brought her cap and gown to the school, and snapped a few self portraits. One of those images is currently featured on Pikes Peak’s Facebook page, and it sums up her journey: On the back of Sondra’s graduation cap, covered with mementos, are photos of her mother and father on opposite sides of a camera, along with the words “Capture Life.”
Join the Movement
These students’ stories are possible, in part, because of schools that went the extra mile, playing a pivotal role in ensuring college completion. If you’d like to learn more about how your institution can help students find purpose, build momentum toward graduation, find the right path, and get the support they need, we’re here to help.