College & The Coronavirus: The Superhero Student

Mother of two balances job, classes, college leadership roles and outreach activities

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is following the lives of faculty and students like Tatiana Edwards at various colleges and universities in Georgia throughout the first full academic year since the coronavirus pandemic began. We will publish periodic reports about them. This is the fourth of these articles.

ROCKMART, Ga. — Tatiana Edwards’ 15-year-old son, Malachi, is a serious comic book fan.

Most of Malachi’s collection is in a box underneath the television stand, each book carefully kept in a clear, plastic sleeve. His favorite superheroes include Daredevil, Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk.

These fearless characters and many mere mortals, though, would be intimidated by his mother’s daunting schedule. Each page of Edwards’ planner is filled with tasks highlighted in different colors.

Georgia Northwestern Technical College student Tatiana Edwards uses this planner to keep track of the many tasks in her busy schedule. ERIC STIRGUS/ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.

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Edwards, 38, is a student at Georgia Northwestern Technical College; she’s a mother of two sons, ages 6 and 15; she works as an electronic medical records consultant; she’s student government association president at her college and for the entire 94,000-student Technical College System of Georgia; she’s an officer in a student business organization and she’s a board member of the Tallatoona Community Action Partnership, which assists with job placement, Head Start and other services for low-income residents in an eight-county area of northwest Georgia that includes this small community of about 4,000 residents.

“I want to be a good example for my kids,” Edwards explained on a recent Wednesday as Malachi, her older son, sat beside her. “I want them to think you can attempt to accomplish anything you want to, but it’s better to put your best effort out there than doubt yourself and then have any regrets because you never know what could have been.”

“I have the same philosophy,” Malachi said after his mother finished her thought.

The coronavirus pandemic has tested Edwards. She spends up to five hours a week helping other students with various classroom challenges, such as trying to get on campus for courses that require hands-on learning. Edwards, like many students, has struggled with the isolation created by social distancing. The most serious challenge, though, came when Edwards and her family had their own bout with COVID-19.

As student government association president for the entire technical college system, Edwards gets calls, Facebook messages or video chat requests from students at other schools seeking her help with taking classes online or assistance contacting their instructor.

Some ideas worked; some didn’t, she said during a February interview.

She helped get free laptop computers for students who didn’t have one. Another win was expanding internet access at her college’s campuses to allow students to work from parking lots, if necessary, if they couldn’t get online from home.

Malachi, the superhero fan, is impressed.

How does his mom manage so many tasks?

“I ask that question all the time,” he said.

Tatiana Edwards watches her 15-year-old son Malachi with pride as he shows off his impressive comic book collection. Edwards, a student at Georgia Northwestern Technical College, had to get accustomed to pursuing her degree during quarantine. Edwards is a student at the college juggling work, raising two sons, Josiah (left), 6, and Malachi, 15. Edwards is also the student government leader on campus. (Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM)

Credit: Ryon Horne

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Credit: Ryon Horne

Forging a career path

About 80% of college students have jobs and 27% work more than 20 hours a week, according to federal research. The juggling act for many students was difficult before the pandemic. It’s tougher now, many say.

Edwards said she manages work, parenting, her education and student leadership through “organization, organization, organization.”

Edwards grew up in Plano, Texas, a Dallas suburb. Her high school prom was at the Southfork Ranch, near Plano, made famous by the 1980s soap opera “Dallas.”

She moved to Georgia in 2015, and enrolled at Georgia Northwestern Technical College in 2018, receiving an associate degree in 2020 in applied science. She’s now pursuing a certificate degree in medical coding and billing. Edwards pays her tuition through federal Pell and state HOPE Career grants.

Edwards wants a career that allows her to spend more time with her younger son, Josiah, who is autistic. Her job offers some flexibility. She works 14-hour shifts up to 14 consecutive days, but gets up to a month off. Edwards wants to start her own medical staffing agency.

Georgia Northwestern Technical College has six campuses, with its main location in Rome, about a 30-minute drive from Edwards’ home. State leaders rely on schools such as Georgia Northwestern Technical to prepare students for careers in high-demand industries. Georgia offers free tuition to students in more than a dozen fields that include commercial truck driving, construction, movie production/set design and welding. Many of its students are working adults, like Edwards.

Georgia Northwestern Technical College in Rome, GA continues conducting classes, including precision machining and manufacturing labs, with smaller groups to allow for COVID-19 social distancing and with remote learning when possible Tuesday, Jan 26, 2021.  Instructor Bart Jenkins demonstrates a few basics for a class of new students in their first semester.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Enrollment declined by one-tenth of a percent at the college this past fall, to about 6,600 students. The total credit enrollment declined at the 22 colleges in Georgia’s technical system by more than 8% during the fall semester, to 94,556 students. Technical college system leaders attribute much of the decline to fewer dually enrolled high school students taking college courses on their campuses because of the pandemic.

The adjustment to online learning wasn’t easy for many students, Edwards said. Some lacked computer skills and were anxious about the transition.

“For a lot of them, it was scary,” she said.

For students who wanted more in-person learning, the colleges tried to accommodate their demands while following social distancing guidelines. Some schools alternated classroom schedules to allow one group of students in a class once a week and another group of students the following week.

’Her potential is endless’

Edwards is taking her final two classes this semester to complete her degree. Both are online. Her children attend classes in-person. She does her coursework when the kids are at school and helps with their schoolwork when they come home.

Her home, a small, tidy, two-story apartment, is about 50 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta. A rectangular sign with the word “Blessed” leans underneath the doorbell. Inside is a collage of family pictures on one living room wall. A sign “be awesome today” sits in the living room next to two awards from Malachi’s school.

"Be awesome today," is the message that sits right by the front door of Tatiana Edwards home in Rockmart, Ga.. Edwards is a student, raising two sons (one is autistic) and being a student government leader on campus at Georgia Northwestern Technical College. (Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM)

Credit: Ryon Horne

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Credit: Ryon Horne

Malachi, a ninth grader, is on his high school’s cross country and soccer teams. Edwards typically takes him to practice, which often means long nights. Her mother sometimes helps with driving and other duties for the kids, which she did with Josiah on a recent afternoon.

Josiah rushed toward a visitor’s camera when he walked through the door after a day of pre-kindergarten. He smiled brightly, on cue, for a family picture on the living room couch minutes later. The kids have her dark brown eyes. Malachi, like his mom, is a fast talker.

Edwards’ work space, a tray table, about 3 feet away, held a laptop computer and a textbook turned to a page about the cardiovascular system.

Mark Upton, one of her former instructors, describes Edwards as outgoing, fearless, open-minded and a leader.

“I just think she’s a person who’s going to get a lot done,” said Upton, who leads the college’s Phi Beta Lambda student business leadership group, where Edwards is an officer. “I’d hate to see anyone get in her way. Her potential is endless and I’ll be excited to watch.”

Navigating a pandemic

COVID-19 briefly got in her way. Edwards and her sons all tested positive in early December at the end of the fall semester. She had the most severe symptoms, losing her appetite and shedding 8 pounds in one week.

Malachi had a severe headache. Edwards believes his symptoms could have been worse. Malachi had respiratory problems when he was younger, prompting Edwards to get him involved early in sports. She believes running made his lungs stronger. Malachi, she said, ran 5 miles two days after testing positive for COVID-19.

“He was like ‘It saved my life. My lungs are so healthy,’ ” she said.

Tatiana Edwardsm (left), a student at Georgia Northwestern Technical College, had to get accustomed to pursuing her degree during quarantine. Edwards is a student at the college juggling work, raising two sons, Josiah (not in picture), 6, and Malachi (right), 15. Edwards is also the student government leader on campus. (Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM)

Credit: Ryon Horne

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Credit: Ryon Horne

Edwards said the biggest challenge of the pandemic was the isolation. It was difficult to stay motivated and to keep her boys encouraged.

Administrators at many colleges have noticed the problems students are having emotionally and offering more mental health services. Students at some schools have organized their own virtual activities. Edwards and other students sent impromptu messages to classmates to lift their spirits and held contests with prizes that included Chromebooks to create some campus excitement for students who are rarely on campus.

For Edwards, the ability to connect virtually with family and friends helped her through those difficult periods.

“I’m thankful we have so much technology ... I couldn’t imagine (the pandemic) happening 15 years ago,” she said.

Edwards hopes the college continues the laptop program and virtual learning.

She’s on track to earn her degree in May. After that, she plans to take the boys on a vacation. She will begin working on her business plan when she returns.

The planner will certainly be full of more notes and inspirational messages. One of her favorites is from the Bible, Ephesians 3:20.

“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,” the English Standard Version says.

The Scripture reflects what Edwards said she’s learned about herself through the pandemic.

“I’m capable of more than I even imagined.”