Paine College valedictorian took nontraditional route

Posted by ncarter | 05/16/2011 04:20 AM

By Tracey McManus
Story courtesy of The Augusta Chronicle

The realization came to Deborah Rashada while she was lying flat out in bed with a broken ankle, staring at the ceiling. Rashada, with her 11-month-old granddaughter Yusra Martin, realized she could do more with her life than raise a family.

Until then, every ounce of her had been dedicated to the happiness of her family. She raised nine children and had her soul mate by her side to prove it.

She graduated from Butler High School in 1978, skipped college to marry at 18 and never stopped to worry about herself until that day in 2005 when she toppled like a bowling pin from her roller blades.

"I was lying in bed with a broken ankle feeling sorry for myself," Rashada said. "I was very satisfied being a wife and mother, but I wanted more for myself. I asked myself 'Is this the best I can do?' "

It wasn't, and as soon as she could walk again, Rashada, not quite 50, enrolled in college.

In 2007, Rashada graduated from the Georgia Military College where she earned an associate's degree in education. The real challenge was when she continued her studies at Paine College to pursue a bachelor's in education.

Going back wasn't easy.

Too often in life she felt excluded from conversations with people more educated than her, so when she went back to the classroom she didn't risk missing a detail.

She read every word of assigned readings and didn't hesitate to raise her hand during lectures. There were grumbles from students generations younger than her, who were just eager to get through with classes and close their books.That's where she learned to balance her greenness as a student with her wisdom as a mother.

"I just thought, 'What if I was 18 years old? What would I do? I didn't want to turn around in my desk and say 'I'm old enough to be your momma, so what's your problem?' "

Nontraditional students like Rashada are a minority at local colleges and universities, and their identities are hard to define. Some consider the 19-year-old going to college with three kids nontraditional. Others are the men going into the nursing field or the 50-year-old finally getting her bachelor's degree.

Less than 3 percent of students at Paine last year fell into the nontraditional category. Out of the 1,100 students that graduated from Augusta State University in the spring, 51 of them were 25 or older when they enrolled. But Dr. Paulette Harris, chair of the ASU advocacy group for nontraditional and evening students, said the university tries to encourage these students to join the traditional campus.

The university has a study room in the library specifically for students lugging their children along and offers free tutoring for adults and their children.

"(Older students) really want to do well and at the same time meet all their other needs that they have, and it is a stretch to balance all that sometimes," Harris said.

To Rashada, it was almost an obligation to show that students returning to school after raising a family had their place in the classroom. To do that, she'd break from her duties as a wife to read in the library in the evenings -- sometimes until 4 a.m. -- grateful for a husband who encouraged her in pursuing a dream away from home.

"My husband was so understanding," she said. "He said 'Deborah, don't worry about me. I'll eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner if I have to.' Of course, I'd never let him do that. He's my best friend."

As graduation approached, Rashada was ending her Paine experience with a 3.96 GPA, higher than any other student of any age in her class. When it came time for the commencement ceremony May 1, she walked to the podium for her valedictorian speech and told an intent crowd about her journey.

She described how grateful she was to have the gift of education. She credited her Islamic faith for her strength and thanked Allah for helping her succeed.

The hundreds in the William B. Bell Auditorium fell to a hush when she said she once thought she would never feel happiness again after the death of one of her children in 2000 but receiving an education proved her wrong.

"I thank God for blessing me to live long enough to finally make my mother proud of me, the oldest of her six children," Rashada said.

She fought back tears as her husband, all of her children and all nine grandchildren watched her from the balcony.

She thanked the audience and walked across the stage to a standing ovation.

"It was amazing," said her daughter Fareeda, later remembering the speech. "Not only raising nine kids, being a wife and at the same time going back to school and being the top of her class, there's no better example."

As she left her graduation ceremony and walked out of the auditorium to celebrate with family, Rashada felt a tap on her shoulder. A woman, somewhere in her 30s or 40s, stood before her teary-eyed. "I just want to say, because of you, because of your speech, I'm going back to school," Rashada remembers the woman saying.

Rashada began teaching eighth-grade Georgia Studies at Langford Middle School after she earned her certification in December.To have her own students, her own classroom and to slowly work for their respect has been a lifelong dream.

"The night before my first day, I couldn't sleep I was so excited," Rashada said. "I kept wondering 'What does it feel like to have your own classroom?'"

Because of budget cuts facing the Richmond County School System, Rashada is still waiting to see if the district can offer her a classroom position next year.

She hopes she'll be able to continue touching students' lives, but knows in a way she already has.