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The Long Road to Graduation: Chelsea Harkins’ 14-year journey to a bachelor’s degree

On Saturday, May 11, at Enmarket Arena in Savannah, Chelsea Harkins completed a 14-year journey to receive her college degree from Georgia Southern University. It’s a quest she pursued with passion and perseverance, overcoming unimaginable obstacles along the way.

“It’s been something that I could never just step away from and just say, ‘I’m throwing my hands up and I just can’t do it,’” she said. “It was a need to continue doing this for myself.

“Now that I’m at the finish line, I can look back and see how unique it is. But at the time, when you’re in it, it’s a hard line between ‘Wow, I failed because I didn’t do it the way people normally do’ and ‘Wow, I did it even though people said I couldn’t.’”

Despite their opinions, few people could have traveled the road Harkins took to get her degree.

A native of Cincinnati, Harkins began her college education in 2009 at Miami University in Ohio, where she pursued an English education degree to become a teacher in an urban school district. Her passion was and still is helping people, and teaching students in difficult circumstances seemed a fulfilling way to spend a career.

Just a few semesters into her education, however, Harkins and her family were faced with the ultimate nightmare for any parent. Her oldest daughter, only 9 years old at the time, was diagnosed with severe mental health issues. She spent the next few years finding the right medications, receiving specialized therapy and joining groups for socialization and play.

In an effort to keep her education moving, and to learn more about what was going on with her daughter, Harkins changed her major and pursued courses to become a psychiatric nurse.

“You start digging really deep and doing as much research as you can to figure out what’s happening with your child,” she said. “It led me to want to work in the mental health field because I saw what was lacking and also what was good. But it was a lot of ‘Let me try to take a class here or there,’ but my daughter had to go to a lot of institutions and doctors and I just couldn’t keep up.”

It was several years before Harkins could commit to school at all again, but health setbacks required her to shift her life again.

Her youngest son was diagnosed with heart failure while still in the womb. When he was born, Harkins said he had a stroke and died in her hands. He was immediately airlifted to another hospital and brought back to life. It was years before he could experience the normal, healthy life he enjoys today.

“Those extra worries don’t really go away,” she said. “Even when doctors start saying things are better, they still sit in your mind as a mom.”

After years of upheaval, Harkins’ life began to get back to a semblance of normalcy when she and her family decided to move to Richmond Hill, Georgia, in 2018. She wanted to continue schooling when she arrived but had to wait two years to be able to get in-state tuition at Georgia Southern’s Armstrong Campus in Savannah.

When it was time to go back to school, however, Harkins wasn’t sure where to begin again.

“I changed my major a lot,” she said. “It’s actually a running joke in my family and circle of friends that I never know what I want to do when I grow up.”

She decided to pursue an Interdisciplinary Studies degree with concentrations in sociology and criminal justice, and a minor in psychology. The interdisciplinary degree would allow her to use the credits she’d gained in other programs, and her concentrations and minor would allow her to pursue her passion for helping others through such difficult circumstances as her own.

“It was hard because the mom guilt made me feel bad for doing it,” she said. “But personally, I loved doing it — every class I took. A lot of people say, ‘Man, you wasted a lot of time, though, changing majors or taking courses you didn’t need. And always my response is, ‘That’s not true! Because nobody can take this knowledge from me. I don’t have to give it back. It’s mine. I get to keep it so I don’t feel like it was a waste.’”

Harkins return to school was anything but easy. In order for her to become a full-time student again, she relied on her family to rely less on her. She was still helping keep family finances in the black, and she worked at The Crab Shack on Tybee Island as a waitress and bartender as well as an assistant at McNamara Law Firm in Savannah.

Despite the long hours, Harkins still found time to do hours of service-learning at a women’s shelter in Richmond Hill and take 18 credit hours for the last two semesters of her degree.

“This ending year is the hardest I’ve done, but I’m doing it,” she said. “We had a family meeting and we all agreed that I’m going to push through and do it. And they would try not to rely on me for as many things. So it was kind of a family affair by the end. Even my husband started cooking! It was great!

“Are there times I wanted to quit? Yes, today,” she added, laughing. “As I’m looking at how many papers are due, today is a good day if I wanted to quit.”

Though she faced difficulties and isolation as an older student, Harkins says she was motivated to keep going by her kids, who watched her persevere for years to reach this goal. She says they’re all thriving now,  and some of them are now adults. But she wants them to remember how important education is — especially her daughters.

“I’m the first woman on my mother’s side to earn a college degree,” she said. “I think it’s important for women to be educated and to know that their education is worth it and that they can do anything. I tell my daughters one of the most dangerous things you can do is be completely dependent on somebody else.”

As Harkins reflects on her journey, she still wrestles with whether she should feel guilt for taking so long to finish or feel pride for pushing through and crossing the finish line. She faced personal doubts, guilt and occasional negativity from friends and family who thought she shouldn’t be in college at all.

At the end of this road, however, she’s happy they’ll all be there to see her do what seemed impossible.

“I tear up as I think about the people who are coming from all over the U.S. to watch me do this,” she said. “So I am just excited and ready to see everybody and let them see me do what some of them said I couldn’t.

“It’s a hard debate inside your brain of whether you should celebrate yourself or should you be mad at yourself because you didn’t already have it done. But the other side of being happy with myself is winning. It’s starting to win out.”

Being happy should win out for Harkins, who has crammed four years of college into 14 as the saying goes. And while she’s proud of her accomplishments, she knows there’s still some ribbing she’ll have to endure.

“I think people still don’t believe there’s actually a graduation party,” she said.

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Posted in Graduate Stories, Press Releases