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Lilburn mother’s decades-long journey back to college

Stephanie Jackson was at a crossroads.

She was 40 years old and, after 19 years of marriage, in the middle of a divorce. Now a judge was telling the Lilburn mother she had two years to get her life together, get a job and help support herself and her sons.

But except for a retail job here and there, Jackson, now 43, had no work experience. Two decades earlier, she’d dropped out of college so she had little education beyond high school.

For the first year and a half after her divorce in 2013, she worked three part-time jobs. The only thing she knew for sure was she didn’t want to continue living paycheck to paycheck, making ends meet with monthly food stamps.

“If something catastrophic had happened, there would not have been any recovery,” Jackson said.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t one of those stories that captured our collective attention in 2000 about professional women opting out of the workforce to become stay-at-home moms.

Jackson had never opted into the workplace. Like so many women before her, she abandoned her own education and thrust her financial security into the hands of her husband.

After graduating in 1990 from Birmingham’s Resource Learning Center, a gifted magnet school now called Jefferson County International Baccalaureate High School, she headed to the University of Montevallo on a full scholarship.

Despite making the dean’s list her first semester, Jackson became the quintessential gifted slacker. Those are her own words, not mine.

“I checked out,” she said. “I stopped going to class. I stopped doing homework, interacting with people.”

Jackson was in an abusive relationship with a guy she adored. She was depressed. She gave up.

In hindsight, she wasn’t ready for college. A year off might have given her time to mature a little.

Everybody seemed surprised when she blew it. Jackson was not.

Two years later, she tried again, transferring to the University of Alabama, Huntsville, but again, her love life got in the way.

She married Don Jackson in 1994 and had two sons, Patrick and Trey.

While her husband provided for the family, Stephanie looked after their boys, but their happy middle-class existence wouldn’t last. In 2012, the couple separated and a year later, they divorced.

She was in court when she saw her day of reckoning. You have two years to become self-sufficient, the judge told her. Then she would lose support from her ex-husband.

Jackson may not have had many skills, but she knew better than most what made her tick. She loved breaking down complicated legal documents and digging for details. She was resourceful, analytical and a critical thinker.

She began researching paralegal programs and discovered “Go Back. Move Ahead.”

Launched in July 2014 as part of the state’s Complete College Georgia initiative, the program is a collaborative effort between the University System of Georgia, the Technical College System of Georgia, the Georgia Student Finance Commission and Gov. Nathan Deal. It is intended to encourage the more than 1 million Georgians like Jackson who have completed some college to return and finish their degrees and for good reason.

Rosalind Barnes Fowler, director of public awareness and outreach for the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, said that by 2025, it is projected that more than 60 percent of jobs in the state will require a college certificate or degree. Only 42 percent of the state’s population, however, hold college credentials.

“This creates a need for an additional 250,000 graduates beyond current graduation levels over the course of the next nine years,” she said.

Under the program, adult learners may transfer more earned credits and enroll in both online and on-campus courses. Financial aid and academic advisers are also available to help connect them with appropriate degree programs and information.

So far more than 4,000 students have taken the first step toward completing their degree.

“What we have seen over the past few years is that adults in Georgia understand why they should return to school and earn their degrees,” Fowler said. “What they struggle with is the how — how to take the first step back, how to make college work for them, how to juggle a part-time job and a family with college, how to go back to school without completely starting over.”

“Go Back. Move Ahead.” settled all those questions for Jackson, who enrolled at Georgia Piedmont Technical College in the paralegal studies program. Last year she was was named winner of the Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership, the equivalent of student of the year for the Technical College System.

By the time we met last week, she’d been working four months as a paralegal for the public safety section of the Georgia Attorney General’s office.

“Go Back. Move Ahead.” and the Technical College System, she said, provided a lot of hands-on training, real world experience and advice from her professors, a retired judge and two practicing attorneys.

Jackson isn’t done. She is pursuing a degree in liberal studies with a minor in gender studies from Mercer University.

“I’m so lucky,” she said. “I hope everyday that I show them how thankful I am to have been given this opportunity. If there is one person who looks at this and (sees) there is a way to turn their life around, it’s all worth it to me.”

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