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Georgia women beat hardships, earn scholarships

Bonnie Johnson left community college with an associate’s degree and on track to complete a bachelor’s degree that was not far behind.

But life rarely follows the paths we plan.

A series of events, beginning with the birth of her son born with a mild form of cerebral palsy, forced Johnson to put her education on hold. When the baby was born, “I knew I needed to work after the associate’s degree to make money,” she said. “The bachelor’s degree had to wait.”

This is graduation season for thousands of Georgia college students, and many of metro Atlanta’s high school students are receiving diplomas this week. For many, transitioning from high school to college will be seamless. But for others, like Johnson, it can be bumpy, leading them to delay college or take time off once they get there.

And the odds of finally earning those degrees are stacked against them.

About 59 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years, compared with only one-third of adult learners — students like Johnson who re-enroll in college after at least a year away, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and the federal education department.

To improve the odds for a segment of adult learners, Emerge, an Atlanta nonprofit organization, has spent more than a decade awarding scholarships to women — 100 so far — whose higher education has been derailed due to hardships.

“Women tend to be the ones most often trying to give to others, but deplete themselves in the process of giving,” said Jill Ratliff, co-president of Emerge. “This is about trying to help them.”

The group selects between 10 and 15 women each year for the scholarships that average $5,000. As Emerge begins its next year of service, it is working on several new aspects of the scholarship program, including multi-year scholarships to help with costs throughout recipients’ college tenure. Recipients are required to show their commitment to education and be involved in some type of community service.

Members of the 2015 class have overcome incarcerated parents, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and family drug abuse, and are enrolled in area colleges including Clayton State University, and Atlanta Metropolitan State and Piedmont colleges.

“We’re looking for people who want to make a difference beyond their personal lives and their families,” Ratliff said.

In addition to the difficulties with her son, Johnson — one of Emerge’s 2015 recipients — has endured two bouts of cancer, an abusive spouse, a daughter who recently received a kidney transplant, divorce and the loss of her mother. Despite the obstacles, Johnson enrolled in Kennesaw State University in 2011, while working full-time as an administrative assistant, volunteering with various agencies through her company, and being the sole supporter of her two adult children.

This month, 33 years after her higher education was interrupted, Johnson, now 52, graduated from Kennesaw State with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

“It was day-by-day. I couldn’t plan for the future. It took a lot of patience,” she said. “… I decided I needed to develop myself so that I could develop others. Education is the first step. It’s about making the decision that I can do this.”

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