Sarah Cooper wasn't finding the right opportunities in the job market of Newport, Arkansas, with her Associate of Arts degree in computer systems technology, so she decided that the time was right to enroll in Arkansas State University's Bachelor of General Studies online program.
"A year and a half ago, I was working a home health job — a basic minimum wage job," said Cooper. "I thought, 'Surely, this can't be it!'"
Cooper, a single mother of three who works the graveyard shift as a nursing assistant for St. Michael's Place, Newport Healthcare & Rehab Center, saw the chance to make a change last summer after her son Noah graduated from high school.
"There's always been something deep down inside that kept nagging at me," she said. "I don't want to stop here. I don't want to be stuck here. So when I was getting my son ready to start the RN program there at A-State, I kept saying to him, 'Why not? Why don't I go to school?'"
Fitting college coursework into an already packed schedule hasn't been easy for Cooper, but getting through it has opened her eyes to all of the possibilities that await her when she graduates in May 2020.
"Now that I'm working on my bachelor's degree, my hopes and dreams have expanded even more," she said. "I'm looking into the future, and I see graduate school. I see earning my master's in something in the next couple of years. I can see a future I couldn't see before."
A Call to Teach
Cooper is still trying to decide exactly what she wants to do after she graduates, but she has a pretty good idea what it will be. The beauty of earning a degree in general studies is that it does not set limits on what one can do with it.
"If you want a degree that fits your every need, this is it," she said. "It's a well-rounded program that covers the general sciences, English, arts, math — it covers it all!"
The wide-ranging curriculum has allowed Cooper to explore courses freely and really listen for what calls out to her.
"I want to be a teacher," she said with enthusiasm. "I want to teach on a college level or maybe a high school level. I've never seen myself as a teacher, a professor or anything, and now I'm interested in doing that."
The process of continuing her education has created a thirst that Cooper can only quench with more education, and she is looking forward to enrolling in an online master's degree program at A-State in the coming years to teach the population of students who mean the most to her.
"The school counseling master's degree would allow me to teach or definitely work with juvenile delinquents," she said.
Connecting Past With Passion
Real education happens when the subject matter travels past the standard route of book to brain and on to the heart. It was in CRIM 3323: Juvenile Delinquency that Cooper saw her connection with the subject matter.
"That was a whole class about understanding juvenile delinquents on their level," she said. "It really broke it down as far as diagnosis and relating to different groups."
Looking back on her own life, Cooper realized that she actually had a lot in common with the youths she was reading about. She could not deny her empathy for these troubled adolescents when all of the information was laid out in front her.
"I don't want to see them end up going down the wrong path, and everybody knows what that wrong path is," she said. "I want to talk to them and help keep them from going down a path like that. A lot of times, you never know if somebody might need somebody to talk to or a hug. It's more than likely something simple."
Cooper also saw how she could be the positive influence for these youths that she herself needed when she was younger, and she has decided that she will provide them with the encouragement she lacked.
"I want to let these kids know that there's support in the community for them and in the schools," she said, acknowledging that she did not feel like she had a strong support system growing up. "I'm glad I made it through those days when I was a pretty rough kid. I learned from my mistakes and went on."
Balancing Today and Tomorrow
Getting through college is difficult enough, but Cooper has been able to find her way through, studying up to four hours a day while working, taking care of her children and more.
"It's quite hard sometimes," she said. "On top of everything else, I also help my parents who are getting up in age and sometimes need a little help. I'll go to the store for them or something like that."
Cooper doesn't let it get her down though. She looks forward to the bright spots in the time she spends planning for and enjoying the university life with her family.
"They think it's really neat that I'm pursuing this degree and trying to get it done," she said. "I took my youngest child Amairis and her friends to the A-State football game in Jonesboro, and that was kind of a big thing. We got pictures with the mascot! We're going to start going to more of these games."
While it isn't easy to be a student, mom and employee, Cooper is making it through with zen-like attention to the present moment.
"I try to find the balance in it all," she said. "It's kind of rough some days, but I have to take it day by day. I'll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow, and worry about this day, today."Learn more about the A-State online Bachelor of General Studies program.