When her daughter Lauren entered a Head Start Program in 1994, Sonya May knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
“That’s what got me started,” she said. “It’s my calling. I got a job working with Head Start, then I got my CDA [Childhood Development Associate] credential, my associate degree and my bachelor’s degree.”
But she wasn’t finished.
May, the director of three Head Start centers in Jonesboro, Leachville and Manila, Arkansas, graduated with a Master of Science in Early Childhood Services from Arkansas State University in May 2016. She earned her degree through a hybrid program that consisted of both online and on-campus courses. The program is also available through a fully online format.
“With my work schedule, it’s easier for me to do online classes than to do on-site classes,” she said. “The on-campus classes were all in the evening, which worked well with my work schedule.”
May also had strong support from some of her fellow online students, which helped her remain focused as she returned to higher education after nearly a 10-year hiatus.
“We had a little group of us all working toward the same degree,” she said. “We got to know each other and we would email and text each other. When one of us was feeling frustrated, the rest of us would encourage that person.
“We would get together and study. I’m 49 years old, and I was studying with twentysomethings. That was the age diversity in that program. I have found the online classes are more labor-intensive than a face-to-face class.”
Because she works in Jonesboro, May was already familiar with A-State before she enrolled at the university.
“I did some research,” she said. “I wanted an accredited school. That makes a big difference as far as my job is concerned. My job may not accept a degree earned online from a school that’s not accredited. Everybody that lives in this area knows Arkansas State University.”
May knew she’d need some flexibility to go back to school with her job, which includes directly supervising the teaching and custodial staffs, monitoring teacher lesson plans, assessments and documentation of student skills, and training and compiling data, among other duties.
She was also able to immediately apply the knowledge she was acquiring in the online master’s program to her career.
“I would come to work the day following a class, and I would go into the classrooms and tell the teachers, ‘We talked about this in class last night. What do you think about this? How do you think this will work?'” she said. “We have weekly staff meetings with all of the management, so I would share that information with our health team and our executive director.”
May said the key to her success in the master’s program was time management.
“You have to prioritize things,” she said. “You have to set aside time and say, ‘Okay, this time of the day I’m going to study and do my assignments.’ If you do a little every day instead of waiting until the end of the week when they’re due … that’s not the time to do it. My husband and my kids were real supportive – that makes a difference, too.”
One of the most impactful courses for May focused on diversity and integrating diversity into classrooms.
“Working for Head Start, we see a lot of different family types,” May said. “It’s not the traditional family type anymore. You have grandparents raising kids, two moms raising kids, two dads raising kids. We have kids that come from different backgrounds, different ethnicities and different races. You have to learn about the different diverse cultures because what might be acceptable in your culture might not be acceptable to that child’s family.”
Even before she started teaching in the Head Start Program, May always enjoyed being an educator. With the exception of three years working for the State of Arkansas, she has worked for North Central Arkansas Education Opportunity Center Head Start since 2001.
“I started out as a teacher’s assistant, and then I became a teacher,” she said. “I taught in the classroom 15 years. I have kids now today that will see me out at a ballgame and yell, ‘Hey, Miss Sonya!’ Parents are the first teachers, but I was their first formal teacher. They still remember me today. I made a positive influence on their lives.”
May, who enjoys watching HGTV’s Fixer Upper, refinishing furniture and baking, said she proudly walked the stage to receive her Master of Science in Early Childhood Services.
“I worked very hard, so I was definitely going to walk and get my degree,” she said. “It was fun.”
May is the first person in her family to earn a master’s degree. She believes anybody considering a degree should not hesitate.
“Make sure you set aside time for your studies,” she said. “You have to be diligent. Make sure you do a little bit every day so you don’t get bogged down, and have good, open communication with your professors.”
May, who has four children, still isn’t done learning. She is enrolled in an online program for an Education Specialist (Ed.S.) degree, which she will follow with an Educational Leadership (Ed.D.) degree at Liberty University. Her ultimate goal is to earn a doctorate.
“My son [Bradley] was in high school when I started the master’s program,” she said. “He decided to take some time off after high school. Of course, we wanted him to go straight into college, but he said, ‘Well, look at you. You can do it any time. Look what you’ve done.’ How do you argue with that? He’s planning to go to school now.”
No matter how many degrees she earns, May will always be a proud A-State alumna.
“Yeah, I’m a Red Wolf,” she said.
Learn more about the A-State online MS in Early Childhood Services program.