This month’s installment introduces Colette Leonard James, a nontraditional college student whose academic path was never assured, but who will be graduating in May.
Note: Portions of this interview have been condensed, reordered and edited for clarity, but no content has been changed.
The VOICE: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Colette: I’m Colette James and I’m 53 years old. I’m also a high school drop out, but then I returned back to school and got my high school diploma in 2001. So, coming to school that wasn’t on my agenda. Like me doing college, I never thought I could reach it because on top of that, I’m a recovering addict of 25 years. And, I have dyslexia so I figured “I got a high school diploma, I’m good leave me alone.”
The VOICE: You have said drugs have played a role in your life. Can you say more?
Colette: Drugs are something you shouldn’t get involved with but in my household it made it easier because me and my sister and my mother were all addicted. That made it bad. It was easier to allow the children to live with other people so they wouldn’t have to go without eating. My daughter stayed back in first grade because I wasn’t able to get up to take her take her to school. I got put out of housing authority because of paying 80 something dollars for rent but that shit was more important than paying.
People look for love in all the wrong things, in men and whatever, and it’s what is going to make you happy. We think that stuff makes us happy, but it’s only for a moment. Before you know it you look around and time has went by. Your mind may be young, but your age is saying something else. So at the age of 28 God allowed me to clean myself up. Now I have 25 years sober. I went through my 30s and my 40s and I had the opportunity to become someone’s role model.
The VOICE: How did you finish high school?
Colette: I dropped out of high school in 1981. I was a young mother and I didn’t pass the eleventh grade. Once you don’t pass, you don’t want to go anymore. And then, like I said, drugs, getting high, drinking, and a man became more important than going back. So I tried doing the GED thing and it was just hard. GED is harder than taking a test and actually getting a teacher. I got clean in 1992. In 1999 or 2000 I learned about the Daylight Twilight High School, and it was in my neighborhood in the urban community. I said, well let me try Daylight Twilight, maybe I can get my high school diploma that way. Maybe God is giving me opportunities to better myself. And then, when I joined the school, my mother joined and niece joined, so we all graduated. My mother ended up graduating a year before me. Me and my niece graduated in 2001.
The VOICE: And then how did decide to come to college?
Colette: I was married and I was in the process of getting a divorce and I have a cousin who is a school teacher. We were talking on the phone and she goes “You should go back to school,” and I said “Go back to school? For what?” She said “Because now you’re getting a divorce. Men like smart women!” So that’s what made me go back to school.
The VOICE: So what was the first step at Mercer like?
Colette: When I got here, I had to start from the bottom because I had to do a lot of pre-requisite classes, because I wasn’t in school for years. But when I saw my grades it was like “Wow, all you have to do is apply yourself and you can do this even through your challenges. You can make this work for you!”
Last semester I took Professor Holly Johnson’s English composition class and before that I had never read a whole book. Never. Because when I sat there I couldn’t comprehend it. We read a book called Ghettoside, and she gave me an app to put on my phone so I could listen to the audio book while reading, so when it was discussion time in class I knew exactly what was going on. And that made me so happy, that at 53 I was able to read a book for the first time in my life.
The VOICE: One thing that teachers say about you is that you have a very strong work ethic. Where does that come from?
Colette: That comes from my background and being determined. That I was going to make the best of any situation. So if I’m going to give you something, I’m giving you my all, I’m not coming with ten percent, I’m coming with it all. I don’t mind asking questions. As a child people would say that “you are asking too many questions!” and then growing up people would say “Well you got to ask the right questions because no question is a dumb question.” So my model is, if you have a closed mouth, you can’t eat with a closed mouth. Anything that you are determined or what you want, you have to go after it for yourself.
That’s what I do. I try to be the best at whatever I do. I was the best at whatever I was doing even when I was drinking and drugging. Sometimes I talk about the stars and the moon. As a child you want to reach the stars. I found that the stars are the people that you meet on the way. The stars could be a teacher and I’m climbing up on my ladder and I’m reaching these stars. Like if I need help. I go over to a teacher and I say “I don’t know how to do this, but if you can help me, then I can get it.” That makes me shoot for another star.
The VOICE: What advice do you have for other students?
Colette: Try not to smother yourself with drugs and alcohol, men and pills and stuff like that and all that partying. Do your work ahead of time because a lot of high school and college students wait until the last minute. They put a whole lot of pressure on themselves to wait til the last minute to do an assignment. If you do it early you’ll have it done. Then you won’t have to worry about it right? If you need help get the help you need. Don’t be too proud to say I need to go to the tutoring center, ‘cause they’re here for you. If you need to reach out, like if you’re going through it at home, go to counseling sessions. People always look at counseling as a downfall, but really you’d be crazy not to go.
The VOICE: Who are your role models?
Colette: My daughter and grandchildren are my role models. I have to say that because it is them everyday that make me strive. There are teachers here that I love too. They take time out to make sure I get what I need. Another role models is My grandmother. She lived to be 86. But the biggest one is my daughter because she could have turned out differently but she turned out to be a great mother, a great person, through all she suffered, all I went through. And she’s kind of my biggest fan.
The VOICE: When will you graduate from Mercer?
Colette: I don’t want to leave Mercer, but I got to go. I’ve been here since 2012. I started out getting a certificate because that was reachable for me. I started getting the medical office assistant’s certificate, but since I had so many credits I said “Well you might as well stay and get the degree, you’re right here.” So I’ll be graduating with an A.A.S degree in May.
The VOICE: What will be going through your mind when you’re crossing that stage getting the diploma?
Colette:: Reaching the star. I am reaching a star that I wasn’t even trying to conquer. I am thinking about getting my Bachelor’s degree. Thinking about going to Rider. Not thinking about it, I’m on my path to going.