No one in Lavaris Nelson’s family had ever graduated from college, and for much of her life, it seemed like the universe was determined to keep her from getting a degree, too.
But on Sunday at the Irwin Belk Complex, the 31-year-old single mother of two capped a long and arduous personal journey to academic success, graduating cum laude as a social work major from Johnson C. Smith University. Nelson was among 251 in the class of 2013, and one of 10 members of the first graduating class of Metropolitan College, which offers undergraduate degree programs at JCSU for adults who require more flexibility than traditional students.
Flexibility was important for Nelson, who needed to take classes at night because she had a full-time day job as a patient account representative for Carolinas Medical Center – a job that fed and clothed her daughters, 13-year-old Isis and 11-month-old Isla.
In her final semester, determined to walk with her class this spring, she took nine classes. The average college student takes four to five.
“They only walk once a year (at JCSU),” Nelson said. “I could have graduated in December, but I wouldn’t have been able to walk until May of 2014. I wanted to walk. I had to walk. I had to be done, because I want to go on and get my master’s. I’ve waited long enough. I’ve wasted enough time. I’m 31. I’m not getting any younger.”
Nelson was born and raised in Augusta, Ga., and her family bounced around to several residences, some of which her mother was evicted from. A strained relationship with her mother got worse when Nelson was a teen; she moved out and started living with a boyfriend at age 16, got pregnant at 17 and had Isis at 18.
A tough road back to school
She graduated from high school but didn’t give college a try for two years, enrolling as a pre-nursing student at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville. It was a disaster.
“It was not the right time. It was my daughter, family stress, just a lot of different factors that came into play. I could not focus at all. My GPA there was, like, a 1.5.” Before her first year was over, she simply stopped going to class.
A breakup with Isis’ father followed, and soon after Nelson moved her daughter to Charlotte in 2004 in search of a fresh start. She took a job at BellSouth Security Systems in Matthews, then started working at an Old Navy retail store in the evenings.
By 2006, she was re-focusing. She was hired as a secretary in the neuroscience unit at Presbyterian Hospital, then enrolled at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to take more courses required for nursing school. Her grades improved dramatically.
But it was another five years before Nelson finally fully committed to pursuing her degree. In 2011, she enrolled full-time at Metropolitan College, where an introduction to social work class altered – and gave clarity to – her career path.
“That’s when I realized what I wanted to do,” she said. “As a single mother, you don’t make as much. I had to apply for food stamps, Medicaid ... there was no way that I would have been able to maintain my household without applying for those things. So I knew how it felt to be on the other side, and I wanted to help people.”
Yet her struggles continued. Last May, she welcomed another daughter into the world; but the father – a man she had known for five years – decided that he wanted nothing to do with Isla.
“I think it’s the hardest thing I ever had to do,” Nelson said of raising two girls while working full time and going to school. “I actually thought about quitting.”
But in the end, she stuck it out. She took some maternity leave from work but didn’t interrupt her studies.
On April 8, Nelson took a new job in customer service at Charlotte’s Crisis Assistance Ministry, helping people in the types of situations she used to face. She plans to take the summer off, then start working on her master’s – maybe at UNC Charlotte, maybe online through the University of Southern California.
Her professional goal is to work as a licensed clinical therapist with at-risk youth. Her personal goal? To make sure that Isis and Isla are never at-risk themselves.
“I want to be an inspiration to my girls,” Nelson said. “I want them to be able to say, ‘My mom, she may have been a single mother, but she went to school, she got her degree.’ I talk to my (older) daughter about my situation. I’m not trying to hide it. I tell her, this is why you should wait to have kids till you finish your degree and get married.”
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