KOKOMO, Ind. — When Antonia Sawyer counsels families in crisis, she speaks from experience.
Removed from an abusive home and placed in foster care, she rebelled, dropping out of school and earning a GED at age 16. She took the first in a series of low-paying jobs, frying onion rings at a Sonic Drive-In.
She met and married Josh Sawyer in Cañon City, Colorado, following him to a new job and new beginning in Milwaukee. As he found success, she started to consider going to college herself.
“When someone is becoming successful, you can’t be a weight on their shoulders,” she said. “You need to do your best, and that got me motivated.”
Sawyer applied to a prestigious private university in Milwaukee, but was denied admission. After Josh’s job brought them to Kokomo, she edited papers for him as he earned a degree from Indiana University Kokomo. His success gave her the confidence to try applying to college a second time.
“I supported my husband while he went to school, and he in turn became my motivation to go,” she said. “My sister earned a degree in nursing, and my husband had a degree in informatics, and I didn’t have a degree. I was frightened to death, but I bit the bullet and applied, and got accepted. I was in tears, I couldn’t believe it.”
At age 31, eight months pregnant with her third son, she began her first classes, at another school. Sawyer succeeded in her first semester, as a part time student, and then her second. She then took a full load of classes in summer school, and discovered she didn’t like her major, but she loved her psychology electives.
That’s when she transferred to IU Kokomo, and became a psychology major. In addition to being a full time student, she presented at the IU Undergraduate Research Conference, was a tutor and scribe, and raised three boys, ages 11, 6, and 4.
She graduated from IU Kokomo in December, something she never would have expected to happen when she dropped out of high school.
“I received my diploma, and I was like, ‘This is mine, I actually did it.’ I’m still on Cloud Nine about it,” said Sawyer. “I can’t wait for Commencement. I’m going to walk slowly across that stage, and savor the moment.”
Now 35, she had several job offers before she graduated, and has a satisfying career, working with families that have been in trouble with the law or have lost custody of their children. She is proud to set an example to them of what is possible with hard work.
Clients sometimes ask Sawyer what she knows about what their lives are like, and she answers honestly, knowing they think she is judging them.
“I tell them, ‘I’m not saying you having a GED is bad at all. I understand, it’s OK, I’m here to help you. If I dropped out of high school 16 years ago and just graduated from college, it’s possible for you too. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you, it just matters that you are chipping away at that goal. The race isn’t run sprinting out of the gate, it’s won with slow and steady progress,’” she said.
Sawyer appreciated the encouragement she received from IU Kokomo faculty members and her advisor, Lori Collins. She helped teach a colloquium for older returning students with Collins, sharing her own experiences and success.
“The professors here are so encouraging, they really push you to get involved as much as possible,” she said. “They believe in you, so you start to believe in yourself.”
Her friends and faculty also encouraged her after her family’s home was destroyed by the November 2013 tornado. The Sawyers just returned to their rebuilt home in June.
“We lost everything,” she said. “My professors and friends provided Christmas for my boys, and new clothing. They gave us baskets of food and toiletries. All I had left at that point that was normal was school. I kept my kids in school, and I went to school, because it was a positive, normal thing for us to do.”
Coming from an unstable family background, her priority was making sure her education didn’t interfere with her own family. She scheduled her classes and activities during the day, while the boys were in school. Her husband scheduled vacation time at work for during her finals weeks, so if one of the kids was sick, he could take care of him while she took her exams.
“I know it’s a sacrifice to everyone in the family to have someone in school,” she said. “I didn’t want anyone to feel like I wasn’t there, and I should just go part time. I wanted to do it all, and I wanted to graduate with honors, and I did. I think I had to prove to myself that I could do it. I could be a mom, I could be a wife and I could be Antonia, a student.”
Before graduating in December, she had several job offers, and accepted one with Lifeline Youth and Family Services. Based in Kokomo, she works with probation offices, and at risk youth who may have run away from home, aren’t going to school, or have disciplinary issues.
“Our main goal is to reunite the families,” she said. “We ask them what their goals are, and facilitate them meeting those goals, such as finding stable employment, acquiring education, getting a driver’s license, and working through their legal situation.”
Sawyer plans to work at least a year before starting a master’s degree in social work, which would allow her to be a marriage or family counselor.
Sawyer sometimes thinks of her 16-year-old self, and how far she’s come.
“I disliked my social worker, and was rebellious,” she said. “As you grow up, you realize those people have helped you become the success you are today. Without those people, I would never have gone to school, and become a successful wife and mother.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.