When Sharita Mathis-Lawson found herself a divorced mom of three teens, with a fourth child from a recently failed relationship on the way, it would have been easy for her to throw her hands up in defeat. Just a few years shy of her 40th birthday, this is not how she envisioned her life would turn out. But instead of giving up, she turned to her go-to in times of crises and uncertainty: school.
“For every child I had, I was in school,” says Sharita of getting pregnant with her first child while in undergrad, her second while getting her masters degree, and a third during a brief stint in law school. Though it had been 13 years since she’d set foot in anyone’s classroom, it was Iyanla Vanzant’s two-year personal development program that called her name.
“I was so broken and depressed when I discovered Iyanla and her work so by the time she tweeted about her school, I knew I had to be there,” says Sharita who showed up to the first day of school, fully preggo, prompting a perplexed Iyanla to ask, “How do you plan to finish this program?”
Though Sharita didn’t have a clear answer at the time, she knew that finishing it was a matter of life or death. So she dug her heels in and got to work; not only did she finish Iyanla’s program, Sharita got accepted into the PhD program at North Carolina A&T University (the first time she applied), and did both programs for a full year.
Now, with Iyanla’s school behind her, it was time to give serious thought to how she would finish her PhD. She couldn’t deny that commuting 90 minutes to class everyday was taking its toll, as was the financial burden of trying to maintain the same lifestyle she had when she was with her child’s father. So, in an unprecedented move, she downsized everything and moved her family to Greensboro to be closer to school. Her teen girls were not happy.
“We were living in a much smaller place, they missed their friends; it was a rough transition,” explains Sharita, who also had her own doubts. Was she being selfish? Ultimately, she went with her gut.
Her next big challenge came when she was hired as a graduate assistant at her school to help poor performing students do better.
“At first, I had no idea how I was going to make that happen,” explains Sharita, “but then, as I thought about my own life and what helped me stay in school, it was purpose, and having a vision. So with the tools I learned from Iyanla’s school, I began helping students create a vision for their lives, and then we figured out how a degree could support that.”
She named the program ME2 (My Experience, My Education) and it ran for three semesters. 70% of those who participated showed an increase in their semester GPA and 50% of ME2 participants made the Dean’s List. When it was time to pick a subject for her dissertation it was an obvious choice. Next, as a way to stretch herself, Sharita chose quantitative research as the basis of her studies, and it was game on.
“The program was like an academic hazing process,” says Sharita. “I was up every morning at 3 am and I had no room for a social life.” Yet, for all her hard work, her committee member still told her that he didn’t think she could finish the program that semester.
It was a serious blow.
“I started thinking that maybe I was crazy to go for a PhD. Less than 4% of Americans achieve it, and I didn’t know anyone in the program with my responsibilities…but then I thought of my girls and all the sacrifices we made. I thought of the people who’d helped me like my parents, sister friends and other associates who came over to help fix things in the house that had broken down, and so many professors and others in the program who held me accountable and also made sure that I was eating properly. I couldn’t let them down.”
She laid one brick at a time, and 167 pages later, she took her project before the dissertation committee, and heard the words she’d worked so hard to hear: ”Welcome.”
Then a Committee Chair said something that she will never forget.
“Do you understand what you have done, Sharita? Nobody can ever tell your girls what’s not possible because they saw you do it.”
Judging by her daughter’s achievements, they’re taking notes. Sharita’s oldest daughter was named Miss Freshman at her college, her second oldest had the highest ACT score at her school, and her oldest three daughters are National and World Champion All-Star Cheerleaders who travel the country hosting cheerleading camps.
So what does the future hold for Dr. Sharita Mathis-Lawson?
“I want to continue with my organization, Black Girls Cheer, to promote scholarships, athletics and leadership in young girls; on the academic side, I want to build my program and continue to help support college students to excel in school.”