Michelle Collins hopes to dedicate her career to helping troubled kids in the Illinois community where she grew up and still lives, but her sunsets are all for her mother, Betty, who passed away after a sudden illness in May 2019.
Collins, who is enrolled in the Master of Education in School Counseling online program at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, was devastated as she watched the most important person in her life struggle with a fatal illness.
"I asked my mom, 'Do you want me to go with you?'" she said. "I couldn't imagine living without her and how heavy the grief would feel. Mom said, 'No, you have too many sunsets you have never seen, and you need to stop worrying about me. The Lord has been with me.'"
So, Collins stayed the course and began planning a trip to Durant, Oklahoma, to walk in the May 2020 commencement ceremony and watch the sun go down.
"I am coming to graduation because I decided to dedicate a sunset in every state in our country to Mom," she said. "I have to go to the ceremony in memory of my mom, as a tribute to her. She was so proud of me."
Collins was an only child raised by a single mother in a poverty-stricken household. When she became a teacher and worked with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) through the Illinois Education Association, she found her true calling.
"I thought, 'Wow, according to this information, I had some ACEs, too,'" she said. "When you are a kid, you don't realize how things are shaping you for your life and how the things you can't control affect you. After hearing all of that information, I said, 'I have to find a way to help kids in a deeper capacity.'"
Collins knew the power of education from a very early age. Her grandparents were sharecroppers in Jim Crow-era Mississippi before they moved the family north for a better life and more opportunities as part of the Great Migration.
"It's important to me because I know the history," she said. "I know how hard it was to get equality for black people and for women to be afforded opportunities.
"I was also always a very smart kid and looked up to my teachers. They supported me and made me feel like they really cared, just like they do at Southeastern Oklahoma."
So, Collins graduated with a bachelor's degree from Eastern Illinois University in 2002. She began teaching the following year, and then returned to EIU to earn a master's degree in educational administration. She teaches seventh-grade English and hopes to become a full-time counselor.
"I felt that having extra education would help me to help students even more and to be a role model," she said. "It's important that kids see people who look like them and can relate to them in every aspect of their school career.
"I always said — even when I was in high school — that I was going to come back and help the kids in my community, because I know I wouldn't be the person I became if it wasn't for my mom, my teachers and the people who loved and believed in me."
Collins enrolled at Southeastern at the suggestion of a friend who wanted her to return to college. Once she chose to take her career in a new direction, it was an easy decision.
"I also want to be the most marketable person that I could be," she said. "It makes me feel good to build my resume. I told my friend, 'If you can find a school for me that is completely online and is relatively inexpensive, I'll do it.'"
The online format allows Collins to maintain her full-time teaching position while building for the future and honoring her commitment to education.
"The program is a lot of work and you will be challenged, but it will be worth it," she said.
Being an online student also meant Collins could spend precious time with her mother in the hospital.
"Anybody who came into the hospital saw my books and my laptops there," she said. "I had to finish, but I was so aggrieved in my spirt because I have never been without her. She has been my biggest supporter and my biggest encourager."
Another reason Collins has been able to persevere in the online M.Ed. in School Counseling program is the support of the faculty and staff at Southeastern, including Dr. Kathy McDonald.
"I emailed her when my mom coded and told her, 'This is a really bad day. I couldn't get my discussion board done,'" she said. "Dr. McDonald was very supportive and has been very encouraging. The majority of the staff makes you feel like you're not a number. Even though they don't know me personally, I like the way they interact with me."
Although Collins hopes to transition into a new role, the information she is learning in the program has been applicable within her current position.
"The classes that have to do with brain-based research and child development are especially applicable," she said. "I have been at parent-teacher conferences where a parent says, 'I have tried to tell my kids something but they don't get it.' I tell them, 'It's because their prefrontal lobe hasn't developed yet.'"
Collins knows how important finishing her second master's degree is to her future — and especially to the memory of her mother. That helped her push through the pain and grief to stay on track and finish what she started.
"I didn't know I could be so strong until being strong was the only option I had," she said. "It's a tribute to my mom. I would be nothing without her. This would not be possible without her."
Learn more about the SOSU online M.Ed. in School Counseling program.
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