Tens of thousands of students will be receiving their bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees this month from various colleges and universities in metro Atlanta.
Each student had an unique journey to get to college and complete their coursework. Many of those journeys weren’t easy.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently interviewed six of these students. Each student, in their way, is helping others. Here are their stories:
MARC ANTHONY BRANCH — EMORY UNIVERSITY
Marc Anthony Branch will have little time to celebrate his commencement from Emory University. He’s off to Cambodia the day after the ceremony.
Branch, 27, is headed there to do urban development programming and assessments work with Habitat for Humanity’s national office there.
“It’s going to be an exciting weekend because so much is happening,” Branch said.
Branch is earning his graduate degree in development practice, with long-term plans to work for organizations that aim to resolve issues in ways that best fit the needs of a particular community. He’s worked in several nations and is considering a career at an international nongovernmental organization.
While at Emory, Branch has still found ways to help people in other lands. His resume notes he authored water, sanitation, hygiene and food security technical guides in over 15 countries that included instructions for adapting projects for specific cultures and ways to find alternative sources of funding.
His interest in helping others began as a child when his mother took him along on community service projects. Branch’s parents are in the medical profession, and they instilled the importance of helping others. That spark his family lit as a child in community service became a flame.
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“You use your privilege to uplift other people,” Branch, born in Pittsburgh and raised in Richmond, Virginia, explained. Branch frequently used the phrase “tip the scales” in one conversation to explain how he’s trying to help people in other countries enjoy the same resources that Americans do.
A two-year stint as a health volunteer in Peru with the Peace Corps solidified Branch’s interest in pursuing a career in international development. He primarily worked with families with children younger than 5, teaching proper nutrition and hygiene practices to curb malnutrition rates. He extended his stay there for two more years, and along the way met people who “pushed me to do bigger and better things.”
His family was somewhat upset about his decision. They wanted him home. Branch attempted to find a compromise. He called on Sundays.
“My family has grown to embrace what I do,” he said.
ANTOINETTE CHARLES — GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY
The storm clouds moved fast over downtown Atlanta on a recent Monday afternoon. Georgia State University student Antoinette Charles moved faster.
Charles was preparing for a banquet for a student organization, Pads for Princesses, that helps the homeless. Charles, the group’s president, raced across the room to set the tables, greet guests and line up the gift bags just right. Changing from black flats to heels didn’t slow her down.
And when it was time to eat, Charles, 20, walked quickly to the buffet tables to open each tray herself for attendees.
Charles has shown in her four years at Georgia State that there’s nothing she can’t do. Not only is she president of Pads for Princesses, she takes an annual trip to Honduras with other young people to provide health care there. In February, Charles, a neuroscience major, was chosen as Georgia State’s representative among its 52,000 students for the University System of Georgia’s annual recognition of high-achieving students.
Charles said her approach to school is similar to a quote she heard from the university’s president, Mark Becker: “Never let your education get in the way of your education.”
“What he meant is you can go to school and go to class and go to sleep or party. Instead, you have so many organizations to jump into and dive into as a college student,” she said.
Charles said her interest in helping the homeless began when she took a class two years ago in which she had to intern at an organization that helps the homeless. She learned about some of the challenges they face, like mental illness, by talking to them instead of walking past them to class. The professor who taught that class, Joseph Feinberg, noted Charles has spent “hundreds of dollars of her own money” to support the organization, which provides blankets for the homeless.
“It’s amazing the kind of commitment and the degree she truly cares for people experiencing homelessness,” said Feinberg, the university’s faculty associate for entrepreneurships and experimental learning. “She’s taken the organization to a higher level of service.”
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Charles seems to have always been in a hurry. She took college courses during her last two years at DeKalb Early College Academy. She’s worked in a research lab on campus the past three years and was part of a team that won a research grant. Charles plans to do research at the National Institutes of Health after graduation.
Her long-term goals include becoming a doctor who researches ways to alleviate health disparities and starting a foundation to provide sustainable health care in Haiti. Her parents were born there.
Charles, a first-generation college student, won’t have much time to celebrate graduation. The trip to Honduras is the same week as commencement. She’s planning to go, of course.
TERESA ECKART — KENNESAW STATE UNIVERSITY
Teresa Eckart worked as a prosecutor and a magistrate judge, but like many of us, she wasn’t doing what she loved.
Her solution? The 59-year-old went back to school to become a ballet teacher.
Eckart will receive a bachelor’s degree in dance with a ballet concentration from Kennesaw State University. She teaches three days a week — often more — at the Sawnee School of Ballet in Cumming. Her students range from age 3 to teenagers.
“I so enjoy it,” Eckart said.
Eckart, who grew up in Tampa, Florida, took ballet lessons when she was young but pursued a career in the criminal justice system across the bay in nearby Pinellas County. In 1994, Eckart moved with her family to metro Atlanta. A few years later, in the midst of her divorce, Eckart wondered, “What do I really want to do?”
“I love ballet. I want to teach ballet.”
Eckart’s son was a student at Kennesaw State, and she decided to take a ballet class there. But first, she said she had to audition.
“It was a little intimidating because it was all these 17-year-old girls in the room,” Eckart recalled. “Oh my gosh! I’m the only old lady in the room!”
She began with a two-week class. Each lesson was four hours. She took more classes, and persevered through some injuries.
Indeed, Eckart loved ballet.
“It’s the connection with the music and the movement and you leave everything else there,” she explained. “It’s like everything is right with the world.”
Becoming a student again had its challenges, she said. Between its two campuses, Kennesaw State has about 35,000 students. The foot traffic on the Kennesaw campus during some parts of the day can resemble Times Square. It was a little daunting for Eckart, who graduated from what was a small women’s college in Virginia. So, too, was learning how to use technology. The biggest challenge, though, was having to take Spanish.
“It’s harder to learn when you are older,” she said.
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Courtney Bromwich, the ballet school’s owner, recalled Eckart’s first session with the kids. Unlike most instructors, Eckart got on the floor with the children to be eye level with them. She’s always animated and energetic, and Bromwich said “the kids adore her.”
Bromwich added Eckart can do more push-ups than her students and outplank them.
Bromwich, who was in the first graduating class of KSU’s dance program in 2010 when she was 30, uses phrases such as “admirable” and “fantastic” to describe Eckart’s impending graduation.
“(Teresa) said my age was not going to stop me and I’m going full force.”
Eckart remembered when she was young, her grandmother read an Ann Landers column about an 80-year-old woman who wanted to become a doctor. Her grandmother was thrilled the woman had such a goal.
Eckart envisioned the conversation she would have with her grandmother about her new career.
“She would be there saying ‘I told you so’ with a big smile on her face and glint in her eye.”
HALEY EVANS — OGLETHORPE UNIVERSITY
Haley Evans was studying abroad in Ecuador when her classmate and close friend Brad Firchow talked her into running alongside him for the top leadership positions in Oglethorpe University’s student government association.
Her campaign was unconventional. She did it remotely from the South American nation, using social media. The two friends won, and Evans, this school year, has served as vice president.
“It took a little push,” she said.
Evans, 21, who grew up in New Orleans, has learned during her four years at Oglethorpe to push herself in and out of the classroom. That lesson began in her first year at the school, where professors encouraged her to go deeper in order to excel.
“I had to learn the lesson that you have to push yourself … instead of going the easy path.”
Evans majored in sociology and Spanish with a concentration in public health and will likely graduate summa cum laude. Evans recently learned she’s been accepted to a program in New Orleans where she’ll learn teaching tools for early childhood education, which is her planned career path. Her mother is a preschool teacher.
Evans has the energetic personality of someone who can keep pace with a young child. She’s worked in summer camps the past six years. Evans is concerned about the gaps she sees in education and wants to help low-income students she believes are not getting the same opportunities as wealthier children in her hometown.
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This semester, Evans helped push fellow seniors to give money to an emergency fund for food, books, rent, utilities and other living expenses. She also encouraged seniors, who pay for their cap and gown, to return them to the university for students who may not be able to afford them.
Firchow, who became student government association president, said Evans has grown more confident and he envisions her leading a nonprofit organization.
“She’s one of those people who can do anything,” Firchow said.
TRAYVON TRUSS — MOREHOUSE COLLEGE
Trayvon Truss smiled when he quoted the best advice he received from his mother.
Even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we have the power to choose where we go from here.
Truss, 22, a psychology major at Morehouse College, has traveled far in his four years. A self-described “social outcast” who said he battled depression before his arrival on the Atlanta campus, Truss spoke of his path a few months ago — which included homelessness for much of his childhood — before hundreds of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens at a black-tie dinner to raise money for the United Negro College Fund.
“I was often bullied by my peers,” Truss told the audience. “I was also diagnosed with dyslexia and initially placed in remedial classes in high school. But I knew that with hard work, determination and the support of my mom, I could succeed. And I did.”
That perseverance earned Truss a full ride to Morehouse through a Gates Millennium scholarship.
The Chicago native recalled attempts by classmates to recruit him, in elementary school, to become a gang member. Truss said he saw fights weekly in high school. Truss avoided the trouble with the support of his mother and by building friendships with classmates with similar interests and goals.
One such friend is Antoine Martin, who graduated from high school a year before Truss and came to Morehouse. Martin encouraged Truss to join him in Atlanta. So, too, did Hope Dealers, a group of Morehouse students who travel to Chicago and other places to encourage prospective students to attend the college.
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“It was a huge reason why I came here. It was about the brotherhood,” Truss said of Morehouse, the nation’s only college exclusively focused on educating African American men.
At Morehouse, Truss said he has made many friendships. He’s volunteered at T.H. Slater Elementary School and is a peer counselor at the college. Truss wants to get his master’s and doctoral degrees and become a high school guidance counselor, helping other young men who were like him.
“I know it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “I just believe God took me this way. Why stop now?”
CRYSTAL WRIGHT — GEORGIA PIEDMONT TECHNICAL COLLEGE
Crystal Wright’s path to becoming the 2018 Technical College System of Georgia’s Student of the Year was a journey in self-discovery.
The Georgia Piedmont Technical College student said in a telephone interview she has learned how “to have confidence in myself and my abilities.”
That growth mirrored her acceptance speech last year. At the beginning, she appeared nervous. When she spoke of graduating from the top technical licensed practical nurse program in Georgia and as the audience applauded, she applauded. She mentioned her team winning a competition three — four, Wright was reminded — consecutive years. By the end of her speech, Wright smiled brightly as she talked about ending the stigmas and stereotypes that some associate with mental illness.
A photograph shows Wright, 35, victoriously raising her fists to the sky. She’ll graduate this month with an associate’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. She eventually wants to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner with a focus on mental health.
Wright’s desire to work in mental health stems from the suicide of her fiance in May 2017.
She became worried about him when during a class, she reviewed a list breaking down the clinical signs of depression. Wright noticed he showed signs in several categories. However, she said he didn’t want to see anyone to talk about it.
“I do have so many questions that I will never know,” Wright said. “I didn’t know how deep he was into his depression.”
Wright speaks about his death and working through her own therapy in speeches. Through her studies, Wright gained confidence in her abilities and with support from faculty. As Student of the Year: “All of those qualities I had, I began to see in myself.”
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Some approach Wright after her speeches to share their stories of depression or mental illness. Some ask for her email. Her main goal is to listen. Sometimes, she advises students to seek campus resources for help and shares suicide hotlines.
About five months after her fiance’s death, Wright began work as a clinical nurse at Legacy Transitional Care & Rehabilitation, which is across the street from the King Center.
“As a nurse, I get to administer little bits of goodness, like love, joy, hope and laughter,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Wright plans to attend Gwinnett Technical College to earn a nursing degree.
“These last two years have totally changed me. I’m a completely better person than I was.”