The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

June 12, 2013

A long time coming

Greenbrier woman overcomes adversity to graduate college

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— Vonda Lockhart never dreamed she’d be beginning again at 48. A mother of four (two boys, two girls), her oldest was headed to graduate school when the family equivalent of a bomb dropped — with d-i-v-o-r-c-e printed across its side. She had been a Mrs., a part of a unit, for 24 years.

Careful now to point out that plenty of time has passed since one of her life’s darkest hours, she maintains she’s also let go of anger over the unexpected detour. Still, it was a tough row to hoe.

Lockhart was a woman experiencing a hard reset. Batteries out of the existence she knew, normal operations wiped clean, she waited to see what the rebooted version of self had in store. Pressed but not crushed, at 41 she faced a daunting decision — stay bitter or get beyond. She chose the great, uncharted beyond.

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What a difference seven years can make.

The pastor’s daughter, dental assistant, wife and mom reconsidered the descriptors that had for so long defined her.

“My self-confidence was in the negative. I think women raised in Appalachia believe their identity is only as a mother and a wife.”

If maintaining the nuclear family ideal against all odds was what had made her successful, then she had failed across the board and by her own definition. But that wasn’t the assessment her conscience would let her make. She had been brought up to believe differently.

Lockhart browses her phone’s gallery looking at images of now, another time, another life. Had that Vonda seen this one, decorated in cap and corded gown, she would have found it unbelievable. Graduating from Bluefield State College a month before her 49th birthday, Lockhart celebrates the achievement of a long-stifled dream — that of becoming a teacher.

“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to teach,” the 2013 graduate relates.

Lockhart first obtained her associate degree from New River Community and Technical College in 2012, then entered Bluefield State College’s Bachelor of Arts in Education program. Now, with the power of hindsight and her strong faith in God, she recounts her nontraditional path to a dream forgotten, and with thankfulness rather than regret.

“There are a lot of worse things to happen to people and what happened empowered me to do what needed to be done. The thing I discovered when I began college was that a defeated past can be left behind. God has plans for us to prosper. We all have a hope and a future.”

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Lisa DeLilly, Office Administrator, Institutional Advancement/Foundation at New River Community and Technical College, attests Lockhart’s story is becoming more the norm than the exception.

“Most of our Foundation scholarship recipients are mothers and fathers, maybe returning to school after a break, or they may have started right after high school and are coming back to school. They are being extremely successful.”

Lockhart was assisted in her academic pursuits by the Babe and Sidney Louis Hyatt Scholarship fund, given to those sharing interests in religious fidelity, respect for family and community traditions, and self-improvement. The fund is one of many scholarships offered to “nontraditional” students — a label becoming less and less accurate.

DeLilly has witnessed many adults starting over successfully as college students, some with amazing tales of resilience.

“We have one student who was homeless. She’s now working on completing her bachelor’s degree. Another was an addict. She just completed her student teaching. We have some wonderful stories of how our scholarships have helped students get that kick-start they needed.”

According to National Center for Education Statistics, 73 percent of all college students were considered nontraditional to some degree as undergraduates in 1999-2000. At that time, 39 percent of students enrolled in undergraduate programs were 25 and older. As far as projections go, through to 2018, adult student college enrollment is expected to grow faster than traditional student enrollment.

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In addition, Lockhart had a safety net of faith beneath her and an example of life-long learning before her for which she credits mother and father, Mary Alice and John Atkins. Her father, too, was a later-in-life learner, attaining his degrees in his 30s.

Then, at the onset of her do-over, Lockhart met now-husband Jim, an assistant principal for Greenbrier East High School.

As their relationship grew, the experienced educator convinced her she had what it took to succeed in college.

“Jim knew how much I wanted to go to school. He said, ‘There is no reason for you not to be sitting in college in the spring.’ I was a nervous wreck the first day scheduling classes. Now I look back at that and laugh. Little did I know the ride I was in for!”

Not without its challenges, returning to school gave Lockhart a zeal she hadn’t before known in her professional life.

“For the first time, I knew what I was called to do. When I started doing my student teaching, I felt complete and at home.”

Her White Sulphur Springs Elementary mentors Lisa Stacy and Dinah Johnson “were amazing to me,” she says. “And it was neat because that’s where my children went to school.”

Now, Lockhart is enjoying two new family additions, grandchildren Addison, 22 months, and Aubrey, 15 months. She is also ready for a classroom of her own, relishing the opportunity to fulfill her purpose in the lives of a few more little ones.

Though it may have been a long time coming, she believes it came at exactly the right time.

“I’m not lumping the younger students I went to school with, but I know I appreciate my education more as an older student. I saw kids within my college experience doing just enough to get by. I think because my husband was so gracious to sacrifice to help me be there, I felt like I had to make A’s in every class. Because I graduated closer to 50 than 40 even, has helped me to understand an education is a gift. It is to be valued and not taken lightly.

“When kids walk into my classroom, I want them to know they are valued, loved, respected and cherished — every single one of them.”

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com