Sonya Muhammad always wanted to go to college.
She regularly made the honor role at Asheville High School and had wanted to attend UNC Chapel Hill.
Her parents’ tumultuous divorce during her senior year of high school sidelined those plans, however, and she moved to Chapel Hill for work but didn’t enroll in school.
Marriage, two daughters and a job kept pushing her dream to the back burner.
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Muhammad, 44, eventually made it college, though her years as a student were not what she envisioned. Now single, she worked at Harris Teeter, made sure she was home for her daughters and went to school full-time at UNC Charlotte.
She knows how hard that path is, and she now helps other women in similar situations stay in school.
This year, Muhammad, who lives in University City, is serving her fifth year as director the ANSWER Scholarship’s Mentors for Moms program.
“For Sonya, this is her heart and her soul, because she knew how much this meant to her,” said Susan Andersen of Ballantyne, who founded the scholarship program.
“She has given back 110 percent of herself as a volunteer in our organization.”
Andersen put herself through college with the help of a local scholarship, and she founded ANSWER in 2006.
Muhammad was one of the first recipients of an ANSWER scholarship, given to women with school-age children. At the time, Muhammad was in her third year of college.
Muhammad remembers the elation upon receiving the scholarship and getting a call from Andersen, who invited her to lunch.
They set a date 10 days out, and Muhammad began putting aside money to buy roses for Andersen when she met her.
“I just wanted to present myself in the best light that I could because she wanted to meet me, and she didn’t know me,” Muhammad said. “She wanted to know my girls, and she wanted to know me. I just thought that was the most awesome experience.”
Her college days were difficult, Muhammad said, but she made sure she was home to cook meals for her daughters and put them to bed. She often stayed up all night studying.
“I just got up every day and just did what I needed to do for that day,” she said.
Muhammad now has a master’s degree and is a licensed therapist. She diagnoses mental-health disorders in children and teenagers and provides cognitive therapy.
She also spends hours each month working with ANSWER scholarship recipients.
Many scholarships don’t keep in touch with recipients, but ANSWER recipients must meet regularly with a mentor. The program now has five scholarship recipients, and since 2006 it has helped 53 women.
Andersen made involvement in Mentors for Moms mandatory in 2010, after four scholarship recipients didn’t graduate from college and the program lost track of them.
Since 2010, only one recipient hasn’t finished college.
“We wanted to increase our graduation rate and make a difference in these women’s lives,” Andersen said.
Muhammad took over the mentoring program two years after it started, and also serves on the scholarship program’s board of directors.
She said the program is “very near and dear to my heart,” and that she is proud of having come full circle, from a recipient to a mentor and leader; indeed, she is the face of the organization, as her picture is on the cover of ANSWER’s brochure.
Muhammad stays in contact with every scholarship recipient and mentor. She sets up mentoring partnerships and organizes Mentors for Moms meetings, which include a speaker and time for discussion.
When women have questions, Muhammad answers them. She keeps up with the women’s struggles and helps when she can.
Andersen said that recently, when Muhammad found that a scholarship recipient was considering dropping out of college due to financial reasons, ANSWER helped her secure additional funding.
“ANSWER continues to be the answer for me and many other women,” Muhammad said. “It does not stop giving, so I don’t stop giving to ANSWER.
“It is something I am truly passionate about.”