May 13, 2017 10:42:45 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Karrah Fort, 38, is likely to long remember how she celebrated Mother's Day weekend 2017 -- by walking across the stage to receive her master's degree in social work from the University of Tennessee. One week later, the wife and mother of three will cheer on her daughter, Aiyana Gordon, as the 17-year-old receives her own diploma from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus. This double dose of achievement has been a two-year group effort demanding sacrifice and teamwork, especially when it meant going from two incomes to one. Karrah had to quit working in order to fulfill internship requirements of her degree. No one in the family has regrets.
"For me, stepping out on faith by quitting my job, returning to school and working hard to master the skills taught in the program were some of the biggest challenges of my life," said Karrah, who was a special education teacher for nine years before returning to school to specialize. Thanks to the Master of Science in Social Work program at UT, she was able to enroll as a full-time student online. While Aiyana was a two-year residential high school student at MSMS, online study allowed Karrah to be close at hand for her and at home as much as possible for Aiyana's younger siblings, now ages 12 and 13.
Taji Fort, Karrah's husband, remembers the family meeting when Karrah was about to go back to school, 12 years after earning her bachelor's degree in sociology. At the time, he was working at a tractor dealership. Now he is a commercial truck driver.
"We all sat down and everybody came up with a game plan and a goal," he said. "I knew that I'd have to change careers because I would need to make a little bit more money."
Everyone did their part to adapt.
"When you're used to eating out a lot and buying shrimp, to going to peanut butter and Ramen noodles, it's a major adjustment," Karrah laughed. "I do think Aiyana looked at me like I was crazy when I told her I quit."
Aiyana, who attended Columbus High School her freshman and sophomore years, is proud of her mom. It's rare that mothers and daughters get to "be students" together, much less share the excitement of dual graduations.
"It felt like a connection in a way," said the high school senior, "especially when I'd be studying for a test or writing a paper. It helped me not to complain because I knew she was going through it, too."
The teen didn't begrudge her parent's time out to pursue an educational passion. "What I want to do in life is be happy, whether that is a job making the most amount of money or the least, so it's only right that my mom do what makes her happy, too," Aiyana said.
Going back to college at 30-something might give many pause, but there was never much doubt Karrah would succeed in her goal. She, like Aiyana, is outgoing and a hard worker, Taji said.
During her master's degree studies, Karrah interned in Columbus as a drug/alcohol and a renal care social worker, at Recovery House and at Fresenius Kidney Care. Those experiences pushed the boundaries of her old comfort zone. She learned not only about social work and therapy, but also about day-to-day patient engagement.
"I feel like I've challenged myself and put more pressure on myself to be the best because I'm not that 23-year-old student. ... I pushed myself not only by studying hard but by joining Phi Alpha," said Karrah, referring to an honor society for students in social work.
Bigger and better
After the double graduations and festivities are behind them, Karrah and her family will move back to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where Karrah was raised and where she will begin her new career. Aiyana plans to major in chemistry at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida, with an eye toward working in the health care field one day.
About mother and daughter reaching milestones together, Aiyana said, "It's overwhelming. We're both getting ready to move on to bigger and better things; it's a sense of accomplishment."
On Thursday, only a few hours before the family was to head off to Knoxville, Tennessee, for Karrah's graduation ceremony Friday, Taji looked back for a moment on the past couple of years.
"I'm just so proud of everybody, because everybody stuck to their game plan," he said. "It was going to take sacrifice on everybody's part, but nobody gave up. Everyone gave their part."
And when his loved ones' names are called to walk across their respective stages? "I'm going be so proud, I'm going to scream."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.