Southeast Missouri State University students and mother and daughter duo Vickey Graham and Narita Gater of Charleston, Missouri, didn’t realize they would graduate together until their final semester at Southeast.
Both will receive degrees at Southeast’s spring 2016 commencement exercises May 14 at the Show Me Center.
For Graham, this commencement will fulfill a lifelong dream to earn her college degree. As a single parent of three children, she put their lives first and delayed her higher education. Now 54 and with five grandchildren, she’s ready to start a new chapter in her life.
“It’s always been a goal of mine to get a college degree, and I’ve always been interested in being a social worker,” said Graham, who used to work at a nursing home. “I knew I could use that degree to work into social services. I enjoy working with older people.”
Over eight years, Graham took night classes to accommodate her responsibilities for work, mother, grandmother and caretaker for her own mom who is battling Parkinson’s disease and dementia.
“I took two classes here and there whenever I could,” said Graham. “It was hard, very hard.”
Helping and strengthening the lives of others is a calling her daughter felt too.
“I have loved children ever since I was 10 years old when I started babysitting,” said Gater. “I feel like it’s my God given ability. I want to set a good example for children and be a good role model. They really need that. This was a big step, but I know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Gater graduated from Southeast in 2010 with a Bachelor of General Studies and worked as a teacher’s aide for the Charleston School District, but felt she needed to do more. She heard positive feedback about Southeast’s College of Education.
“The education program at Southeast is one of the hardest, but the best. They pushed us,” said Gater, who took classes at Southeast’s Sikeston campus to stay close to family and work. “I feel they prepared me very well for the teaching world.”
Throughout their journeys, there were times of stress and doubt, but family and friends were always positive. Graham’s fiancé, John, was always encouraging her efforts and helping take care of her family. With the support of her husband, Moses, Gater was able to become a full-time student and completely focus on her studies.
Prayer and each other also always gave hope and support.
“With the grace of God and my family and kids saying ‘momma you can do it’ kept me going,” said Graham. “Even my coworkers saying ‘whatever you put your mind to, you do can do it, you just have to push yourself’ helped.”
Her mother would often lift her up on the difficult days and the nights she sometimes found herself in tears from the stress. She would remind me what I was doing this for, said Gater.
“She would say it’s not just about me,” said Gater. “It’s about my daughter and those kids that look up to me. She told me many times through my struggles to never give up and would make me promise to never quit.”
Gater’s daughter, Aria, is a vivacious three-year-old who is also picking up her mother’s and grandmother’s can-do attitude.
“She definitely watches me and says all the time ‘I want to go work too, I want to be a teacher too,’” said Gater.
Their hard work will culminate this Saturday when Graham will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice with minors in criminology and sociology, and Gater will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Education with a major in early childhood education.
“I never really realized we were going to graduate together,” said Gater. “It feels really good because I know she put her life on hold for us. I’m really proud of her, and I know she feels the same way about me.”
Graham said she is blessed and thankful for her children – Narita, and her eldest daughter who graduated from Metro Business College, and her son who will graduate this fall from Southeast.
“I’m proud of all three of my children. They are all such good kids,” she said.
Gater will be a first grade teacher starting in August at Warren E. Hearnes Elementary School in Charleston, and Graham hopes to find a place soon with senior services and work with the elderly.
They tease one another that for the rest of their lives, there will always be homework, lesson plans and mounds of paperwork, but they are more than happy to take it all on.
Gater said her mother taught her and her siblings to always persevere.
“Life isn’t always your plan,” said Gater. “But we definitely had someone who set a good example for us.”