Erin Rodgers’ path to earning a college degree began 22 years ago, was detoured by family changes, military deployments and parenting three children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. Overcoming those challenges, the 41-year-old will graduate Dec. 18 from Northwestern State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, which she hopes will help her advocate for other families and individuals who need help.
“It’s been a very long 22 years since I started college and I never in a million years thought I would ever see this day,” she said. “This day is significant, and the fear of more COVID lockdowns lingers in my mind, but I won’t let it defy the fact I worked hard for the degree I am about to get.”
Rodgers is an online student currently living in South Carolina where her husband, a high-ranking enlisted soldier in the U.S. Air Force, is on active duty. She chose NSU for the program of study after reading reviews online and from alumni.
As a child, Rodgers was diagnosed with dyscalculia, a math learning disability often referred to as math dyslexia. After high school, she married, moved to North Carolina and enrolled in community college, where she was placed in developmental math classes. After a miscarriage and a complicated divorce, she moved back to Texas, enrolled in another college and, discouraged by her math classes and test scores, dropped out of school and remarried. Seven years later, she was single again with two children, going from job to job to provide for them.
“About a year after my divorce, I began seeing neuro differences with my children compared to other children their age and expressed my concerns to any doctor who would listen,” she said. “I was missing so much work due to their behaviors and doctor appointments that I was let go from my job and lost the bulk of my income, and if that wasn’t enough, I found out I was pregnant with my third child. I enrolled in cosmetology school, finished and started back to work. Having more flexibility to get help for my children, I was able to get a diagnosis of autism. I was more relieved to have an answer that I didn’t have time to process its significance.”
After her youngest son was born, she and her husband’s first six years of marriage were full of back to back military deployments, developmental consults, getting special education services, fighting school systems to remain compliant and three child psychiatric hospital admittances. It was a time when she was filled with self-doubt.
In 2014, she began homeschooling her oldest child due to a lack of available services and the following year moved from Texas to Arizona where they found much-needed therapies for the children. Rodgers went back to school to become a cosmetology instructor. In 2016, a military move took the family to Oklahoma, where she homeschooled one child and coordinated therapy appointments while working in the evenings as a cosmetology instructor at a local technical college.
“I kept feeling something was missing, and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be,” Rodgers said. “The longer I worked with my students, the more I noticed specific abilities they lacked and how they could be highly successful if given the proper tools. Just like with my children, they just needed help, and they needed someone to listen. In the spring of 2018, I reenrolled into Central Texas College. I began fixing my GPA, retaking classes that I failed and faced my fear of college algebra. With my husband’s help as my tutor, I made an A for the first time in my life in any math class I had ever taken.”
In December 2018, the family was reassigned to Virginia and Rodgers found an opportunity to work with a local applied behavioral analysis therapy company.
“I started working full time providing the same treatments my children had in the past to other children, learning vast amounts of tricks to help my kids still. I was accepted into NSU in the summer of 2019 and formally accepted into the social work program that fall. I became a member of the Phi Alpha Honor Society and have worked diligently to remain on the President’s List.”
Reviewing her degree plan, she realized she could graduate in December 2020 if she took 17 credit hours in the spring. After discussing it with her advisor, Dr. Susan Campbell, she decided to try.
“With mass amounts of encouragement from my husband, I jumped in full force. Working 40 hours a week and the heavy class load, I overextended myself quite quickly, and then suddenly, everything stopped. The pandemic slowed my life down enough that I was able to connect with my family and appreciate what I was working for and why I was working so hard. I have this incredible husband cheering me on, three exceptional children who are watching their mother do something challenging and all these things help keep me going.
Rodgers set up her fieldwork and class schedule only to be given the news the family would be moving again.
“One of the best things I have learned over the years is that resiliency is key to everything we do in life. After many discussions with my husband, I was faced with a choice. I briefly toyed with postponing my graduation, but instead of invalidating my difficult spring semester, I picked up the phone and started looking for placement in South Carolina. It didn’t take long before I had a placement, and in June, we picked up and relocated.”
Finding a balance can be one of the hardest parts of being a student with family obligations, work obligations, and financial responsibilities,” she said.
“Many things come at a cost, but our minds are a powerful motivator. If you believe you can, then you can. If we look for the bad, we will only ever see it. I never thought I would be here; I never thought it would ever be possible to achieve this dream I had 22 years ago. I wasn’t the smartest, I felt overlooked a great deal and I think I just got tired of being mediocre. Having a goal in mind from the very beginning and knowing the level of education needed, I began looking for graduate programs early.”
Knowing the population she wants to serve and what it would take to achieve that goal, she applied and was accepted to the Master of Science in Social Work program at the University of Louisville. She will start classes in the spring specializing in military social work.
“My time at NSU has given me the tools to help advocate for those that lack the ability,” Rodgers said. “The classes I have taken have been instructed by highly educated and helpful professors, each giving me meaningful and impactful ideas to succeed and genuinely care that I do. I am thankful to the fantastic social work department and the devotion they have to their students enrolled. NSU should be incredibly proud to have them on their staff, because I am.”
Rodgers said her journey has shaped her into the woman she is.
“I have many motivations, but one thing I have done for the majority of the last 22 years is that I don’t stop asking ‘WHY’ questions. We may not realize it, but we are all motived by that simple yet powerful little word, curiosity at its best.”
NSU will host a series of five socially distanced commencement ceremonies Thursday, Dec. 17 and Friday, Dec. 18 in Prather Coliseum. Details on protocols and how to view the livestream can be found at https://www.nsula.edu/graduation/.