Usually the graduate’s mother would be sitting in the stands beaming with pride and congratulating her daughter on receiving her undergraduate degree. But for one Jackson State University senior, she and her mother stood next to each other in the commencement line.
Erica Steele received her degree in social work, and her daughter, Armetha Steele, obtained a criminal justice degree earlier this month at the Lee E. Williams Athletics and Assembly Center. Both were excited about each other’s accomplishments.
“I feel excited to graduate with my mom. She has been through so much, as a mother and provider,” Armetha Steele said. “It makes me feel happy. I believe if she can do it, anyone can. I’m proud of her.”
Erica said taking the commencement stage with her daughter gave her “unspeakable joy.”
“I don’t feel as if I am just graduating with one daughter but with all my children,” the Jackson native said. “The most exciting part about graduation is that I have reached a milestone. It’s now my testimony. Through faith, what I hoped for had been reached.”
Erica Steele’s oldest daughter, Erica Steele-Washington, also graduated from JSU in 2004, and for a time she was at JSU with her younger sister and mother. They shared some of the same classmates and instructors.
“Being students together at JSU provided even more opportunities for [us] to strengthen our bond,” Erica said.
Throughout the Steeles’ journey through college, both mother and daughter encouraged each other to make it through school.
“My mom gave me a lot of encouragement. Throughout my college life, she [told] me to pray my way through and told me I can do it,” said Armetha Steele. “Nothing in life is easy. She encouraged me to stay in school and to not get wrapped up in the guys.”
Erica said she decided to major in social work because of her Christian values. Armetha said she majored in criminal justice so she can give back to the community by helping teens get out of the court system.
Erica, a 45-year-old single mother of four (three daughters and one son), was raised in Tougaloo, Miss., in a low-income single parent household. She is the second oldest of six children. Erica felt her biggest challenge was balancing work, school, parenthood, while keeping up academically with classmates who were her children’s peers.
“What kept me inspired to attend and complete college was to prove that I could overcome the destiny that had been predicted for me,” Erica said. “It said that because I was raised on welfare, so therefore my children and their children would also be raised on welfare. They said, because I became a mother in high school that my children would be teenage mothers. JSU and the university family did challenge my mind and change my life.”
Armetha has advice for other students. “I would tell anybody that no matter how hard things may seem in life do not give up. I have worked harder to show people that I can do it. I made it. I finally made it.”
Erica, who is employed with JSU’s TV-23, was first hired as a secretary in 1994 in the JSU Student Publications Office and took her first class in 1995 after being encouraged by her then-supervisor. She has been able to take two free classes per semester and her children were able to go to school for half of the cost. She credits her current supervisor and academic advisors with nurturing and also encouraging her to succeed.
“Today, I have two daughters with college degrees, a daughter enrolled in Holmes Community College and a son who is a truck driver. My family is not on welfare. I am graduating with honors, a member of a national honor society and as a licensed social worker,” Erica said.
“Don’t let people tell you what you can’t do. We can’t change the past or whatever reason that we are non-traditional students. Look to the future; if you have to, take small steps, one at a time, just keep going,” she added.
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