From Dropout to Doctoral Degree

Stories about hard work and perseverance are uplifting and give hope to others.

While those stories are inspirational, they often focus on only one side of the story—the student.

As a student, I was a diamond in the rough, but the other side of the story is that I owe my success to a nontraditional high school, my high school principal, and a teacher who saved my life.

The odds were against me. I was born into poverty and throughout my elementary years, I changed schools at least twice per year, every year. By eighth grade, I had given up on education; I did not care about grades or school. I started failing classes and, ultimately, ended up repeating eighth grade. I continued to switch schools often, as I jumped back and forth between divorced parents.

During my ninth-grade year, I left home. I met a boy, became pregnant, and my parents no longer welcomed me. Luckily, I moved in with his family and, for once in my life, had a steady home. I continued in school, but faced new obstacles. I was 16 and needed to work to support my family. I was juggling high school, a family, and working 30+ hours a week. In tenth grade, it all became too much for me and I dropped out of high school—lowering my odds of success even more. I was a statistic.

I knew there had to be a better way. I soon learned about an alternative high school for kids just like me. Little did I know this high school and the staff would be my saving grace. The school was located in a portable building and had approximately 20 students, with one principal and four teachers. The “go at your own pace” format allowed students to work and attend school part time. Students completed modules to obtain a basic high school diploma.

The staff made the high school effective. Mr. Finley, our principal, provided moral support and words of wisdom to build our confidence. He helped find scholarships and encouraged community college. He personally called if we missed school to make sure everything was okay and to offer transportation. He built trusting relationships with the students, and we knew that when times were rough, Mr. Finley would say the right things to help us get over the hump.

Ms. Baker, one of my teachers, excelled in relationship building. She monitored our progress and encouraged with incentives. She stocked the refrigerator with snacks and sodas for us to purchase. When someone earned credit, Ms. Baker rewarded them with a coupon for goodies in the refrigerator. We met with her often to discuss progress and, when students were within one credit required for graduation, Ms. Baker baked a cake to celebrate their success. We were a family at that little school. We counted on Mr. Finley and Ms. Baker for more than just academics; they believed in us when others did not. They offered kindness, love, and support that made learning enjoyable.

The last time I saw them was a warm May evening when I proudly strutted across the stage in a purple cap and gown as my name was called aloud. I wish they could know that was not the last time I walked across the stage. I strutted across three more times for undergraduate and master’s degrees. In May 2018, I will walk across a stage once again, dressed in velvet regalia as I am awarded a doctoral degree in education. I want Mr. Finley and Ms. Baker to know that without them, this would not have been possible. I am forever grateful for their love and support.

Nicole Koch is a first-grade teacher in Central Texas. She is currently finishing a doctoral degree in educational leadership at the University of Mary Hardin–Baylor. Among her research interests is student preparedness in the 21st-century workforce.

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