One woman’s journey proves it’s never too late to learn
The road to earning her high school diploma was anything but easy. Mary Campbell had many obstacles thrown in her path, from working the cotton fields as a young daughter of sharecroppers, to becoming a wife and mother by the time she was 14. Simply put, life’s circumstances, and even her own negative self-talk, got in the way.
“I had many discouraging moments,” Campbell said. “I would tell myself that I was too old, that my brain couldn’t possibly take it all in. The first time I tried to enroll in the high school equivalency program I got so nervous I couldn’t even spell my own name and I left crying. It took me over 25 years to try again. By then, other people were telling me that I had been out of school too long and that I couldn’t do it.”
Wanting to prove all the naysayers wrong, Campbell reminded herself that growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s and working in the cotton fields was hard, too, and yet she survived.
“If I could stoop over and pick cotton in blazing hot fields from sun up until sun down, then surely I ought to be able to sit in a classroom and learn,” she told herself.
Campbell enrolled in the adult education and literacy program at Eastern Iowa Community College’s (EICC) West Davenport Center in 2013 to earn her high school equivalency diploma. By May 2015, she finally proved to everybody, especially herself, that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. At the age of 70, Campbell achieved her goal – she was officially a high school graduate.
“It took me a long time to get here,” she said. “I left school in 1959 and finished in 2015. I was as stubborn as Ada and Gray – the two mules I used to plow the fields with.”
Campbell’s story of hardship and perseverance, and a little stubbornness, too, is an inspiration for others not to give up hope.
Mary and her 13 brothers and sisters were born and raised on a farm in Lafayette County, Miss. As sharecroppers, her parents didn’t own the farm, but rather worked the land for the owner in exchange for housing, supplies and a portion of the crop’s proceeds. Money was tight, especially since the landowner also owned the general store where Campbell’s family had to purchase necessities on credit which had to be repaid out of their share of the crop money.
“To make ends meet we grew a large vegetable garden and our mother would make many of our clothes out of flour sacks,” Campbell said. “We often wore hand-me-downs from the landowner’s family that they gave to my mother when she cleaned and cooked for them. We only got new shoes when school started and at Easter.”
Campbell attended an all-black, four-room school with other farm children until the sixth grade. She enjoyed school, when she could go, and especially loved spelling. First prize for winning the school’s spelling bee was a few yards of fabric that could be made into a dress.
“Farm work took top priority so we only went to school when we couldn’t work the fields due to poor weather,” Campbell said. “I remember plowing with mules at the age of 11 while my younger siblings were in school.”
Campbell always intended to finish school, but she became pregnant at 13 and pregnant girls were not allowed to attend school. By the time she turned 14, she had a husband and a baby boy and her dreams of graduating high school were put on hold.
Campbell and her husband moved to Davenport in 1960 with her brother and his family. Once she was old enough to work, she was hired at the Blackhawk Hotel making 75 cents an hour. She worked there for several months until she was offered $1.25 an hour to work at Roger’s Car Wash, where she worked for 12 years until she was offered a job at Caterpillar in Mount Joy in 1972. The job was a full-time union job and Campbell was the first black female to work on the yards and drive a forklift. She still wanted to go back to school, but working full-time with five small children made the dream impossible at the time.
Campbell enjoyed her job at Caterpillar and worked there for 16 years until the unthinkable happened.
“I was laid off from my job,” she said. “I had five small children at home and no high school diploma. It was impossible to get another good-paying job. I worked for temp services and other jobs, but nothing paid like Caterpillar did.”
Still reeling from her loss of income, Campbell then lost her husband. With five young children, Mary didn’t have time to grieve. She had to raise and comfort her children and was adamant that they work hard in school. Knowing the importance of education, Campbell’s goal was to get all of her children to graduate from high school.
“Trying to help my children in school was hard, but we got through it by teaching each other what we knew,” Campbell said. “We found a way and worked hard to do to do the math and the writing in the way the teachers wanted it done. I am very proud of all of my children and what they’ve accomplished. They had more opportunities and better careers than I did.”
Campbell’s story may be unique, but so are the stories of the over 1,000 students who enroll in Eastern Iowa Community College’s adult education classes each year. Annually, over 17,500 students enroll in adult education courses across the state and nearly 2,000 students earn their high school equivalency diplomas in Iowa.
“There is a misconception that students who are working on their high school equivalency diplomas were just too lazy to finish high school,” said Bridget Johnson Frisk, a career navigator at EICC’s West Davenport Center. “That is the furthest from the truth. We have students who had serious health conditions that kept them from completing high school. Others, like Mary, were employed and had families at a young age. Many are the first in their families to earn a high school diploma. These students are extremely hard-working. They have family and work obligations on top of taking classes and studying.”
Often, students choosing to come back to complete their high school equivalency diplomas have been out of school for a number of years and question whether they can get back in the swing of academics. To help students succeed in coursework and to prepare for tests, the EICC Davenport West Center provides a lot of tutoring labs and subject-specific assistance. Their dedicated teachers are willing to adjust to meet the needs of the students, often willing to teach at night or meet with students outside their normal schedules.
“We try to provide everything we can to build their confidence and help them succeed,” Johnson Frisk said. “But they have to bring the motivation, they have to want it enough. We can’t want it for them.”
“The more you say you can’t, you won’t get it done,” she said. “There were days I wanted to give up, but my big brother Albert reminded me that you can’t do it all in one day. He would tell me that if I really wanted it I had to be willing to work for it. Now I say that to other students because you need someone to believe in you and be your champion.”
Today, Campbell uses her experiences to encourage and support others. Since earning her diploma, a couple of members from her church decided to enroll, too. She also is a role model for many young high school drop outs in her neighborhood.
“I tell them that they can be whatever they want to be do whatever they want to do, but nobody can do it but themselves,” Campbell said. “I want to help others in my neighborhood, there are a lot of young girls who dropped out. If they need a place to stay I tell them they can stay with me as long as they go back to school.”
Campbell is able to reach even more people now that she works part time at the EICC West Davenport Center, mainly assisting in the testing labs as well as providing one-on-one guidance.
“We hired her because the students respect and listen to her,” Johnson Frisk said. “She comes from a life that the students can’t grasp – literally. They hear her story and realize that ‘if she can get through it, we can, too.’”
As for Campbell, she isn’t done yet. Now that her high school equivalency diploma is displayed in a frame above her bed where she can see it every day, she has her sights set higher.
“When I passed all my exams I thought, ‘Wow, I really did it!’” Mary said. “Now that I know I can do whatever I set my mind to, I really think I will try taking a college course.”