Bonnie Johnson takes the term “non-traditional college student” to a whole new level.
Like many Americans, Johnson had a dream of obtaining a college degree. But unlike so many of the Kennesaw State University graduates crossing the stage this morning, Johnson’s dream wasn’t achieved in a linear, four-year-long fashion.
In fact, realizing her goal took more than three decades. Johnson began pursuing a degree in business administration in 1983. Before she was able to graduate, however, life threw her more than a couple curveballs.
With two premature children born with special needs, Johnson found her academic interests took a backseat to caring for her children.
“After receiving my associate’s degree and giving birth to a premie with Cerebral Palsy, I had to put my goal of a bachelor’s degree on the back burner and enter the workforce,” Johnson told Mashable.
Two failed marriages also meant that Johnson was on her own as a single, working mom.
To further complicate things along the journey, Johnson was diagnosed with cancer — she fought and beat the disease not only once, but twice.
Johnson says she never felt as if there was a good time — or the necessary finances — to go back to school and finish her education, due to medical expenses and the time commitment necessary to care for two kids.
“That is what we do as moms: put our children and their needs ahead of our own, she says.
Throughout it all, she held on to the dream of one day completing her degree. Despite undergoing four surgeries herself in 2013, Johnson resumed classes shortly afterward — even doubling up in order to ensure she didn’t fall behind.
This morning, Johnson finally saw her years of hard work come to fruition as she accepted her diploma. Crossing the stage, she says, it was all she could do to keep dry eyes.
Johnson’s accomplishment is realized with a lot of emotional support and a little financial assistance.
Her kids and family served as a prime motivator for wanting to complete her degree.
“I think my role as a mom constantly shaped my decision to continue my education journey,” says Johnson.
“My children definitely supported and encouraged me more than anything when I had thoughts like, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Is it too much work?’ They told me, ‘Mom, we know where your strength comes from, and we know you can do this.’ They encouraged me not to give up on my goal.”
This morning, Johnson’s daughter attended the graduation ceremony — she was easily recognizable by the “ear-splitting smile on her face,” Johnson says.
Her son is now living in West Virginia independently with friends, and her daughter, who was diagnosed with kidney problems as a child, had a successful kidney transplant last year.
Johnson also received concrete support from non-profit Emerge Scholarships, which provides financial assistance to Georgia woman seeking educational experiences they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford or achieve. The organization concentrates heavily upon giving back to the local community, granting scholarships to women who are likely to have widespread impact with their future careers.
They also provide a support system, answering any logistical questions and offering encouragement throughout the educational journey.
“We know that by educating a woman, we educate a family,” Emerge’s website states. The organization was founded in 2011, and has provided 100 women with more than $500,000 collectively in academic scholarships in the past decade.
“We want to have a ripple effect. We want to support woman who are going to make a difference in their community,” Stacy Sollenberger, one of the women at Emerge who looked over Johnson’s initial application, told FOX 5 Atlanta.