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College degree fulfills a dream for Union City’s Menta Thompson

College degree fulfills a dream for Union City’s Menta Thompson

Posted: Thursday, December 24, 2009 9:36 pm
By: Bud Grimes

 

By BUD GRIMES Special to The Messenger Hard work is a way of life for Menta Thompson of Union City. So, when she decided to enter college in 2004 at the age of 40, she knew earning a degree wouldn’t be easy. She was rewarded for her efforts when she received a bachelor’s degree in social work during the University of Tennessee at Martin’s fall commencement ceremonies recently. Her achievement has added meaning since she was the first of seven children in her family to attend college, let alone earn a degree. Ms. Thompson was raised by Mae Thompson and the late Montrell Thompson Sr. Her mother was employed in the former Obion County General Hospital’s laundry department and her father worked construction jobs, coming home only on the weekends. She graduated in 1982 from Union City High School, where she played basketball and ran track. The school’s 440-relay team finished second in the state, earning her a place in the Union City High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Financial circumstances made it necessary for Ms. Thompson to begin working at age 14 in a summer program for low-income families. She later participated in the high school’s co-op program that made possible a part-time job at the local Sonic Drive-In. After high school, she was employed by the Obion County Nursing Home’s dietary department and, in 2001, she took a position at the Subway restaurant on 206 East Reelfoot Ave., where she is now the manager. Ms. Thompson’s path to college began several years ago during an innocent family conversation with her daughters. As they talked, she urged them to pursue an education so that they could be self-sufficient if something ever happened to her. A short time later, Ms. Thompson received letters from a couple of colleges, including UT Martin. She had not applied to any colleges, so she called Tamisha, her oldest daughter and now a registered nurse, who confessed that she had completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for her mom. Ms. Thompson remembers her daughter saying, “Well, I signed you up because I don’t want to see you have to work after you retire like a lot of people have to.” So, determined to enter the social work field, Ms. Thompson enrolled at UT Martin to earn a college degree. For Ms. Thompson, social work was a natural career choice, having been raised in a family that had limited financial resources. “I came from a family of seven kids,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but, you know, my parents gave us the (necessities) and the basic things that we needed. …” she said. During those years, she said families didn’t have many options for assistance, “but now, there are a lot of resources out there for these families to get help, and I can actually say when I sit and talk to a client, I’ve been where they’re going.I have empathy for his family because I have been through the same situation that they’re going through. And that’s what made me want to be a part of their life, because I can empathize with these people.” Becoming a full-time student wasn’t an option for Ms. Thomp-son. She held her full-time position at Subway, worked a part-time job Friday and Saturday nights and attended classes when she wasn’t working. This continued for about two years until she needed more study time and she quit her part-time job. Her manager’s position required five days a week and a minimum of 35 hours at the restaurant, so she carried her books to work and studied during breaks. Then, after leaving work at night, she would sometimes have to study into the early-morning hours. “It would get stressful,” she said. “But sometimes I would just, like, have to sit back and think, you know, you can do this.” Besides her work and school responsibilities, Ms. Thompson also had a family to consider. Her daughter, Marcetta, played basketball at Union City High School until her graduation is 2009. She tried to schedule night classes so that she could attend games, after which she sometimes returned to work. “It was hard, you know. It was really, really hard, but I figure if it’s something that you want out there, (and) you motivate yourself, you can do it,” she said. Her support for Marcetta paid dividends as she now attends Niagara County Community College in Sanborn, N.Y., where she plays basketball and majors in criminal justice. Ms. Thompson credited her husband, Willie, for supporting her throughout her college experience. A Goodyear retiree who has endured serious health problems, he supported Ms. Thompson by doing housework and preparing meals. She remembered sometimes being so tired at the end of a day that he would bring a plate of food to her. “The only thing I don’t let him do is do my laundry,” she said jokingly. “He doesn’t know how to do laundry.” Instead of putting stress on their marriage, Ms. Thompson said that the challenges have made their marriage much stronger. Her final year in school introduced a new set of challenges as the possibility of graduating was within reach. Last summer, she enrolled for an online class and also drove daily to the UT Martin Ripley Center for a Spanish class. Then, this fall semester, she had to complete a required 40-hour unpaid internship. She worked at Miles Head Start Center in Union City from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, an experience that mirrored what a professional social worker would do. “Most of the time I would have to take my work clothes to work with me at Miles Head Start,” she said. “As soon as I left Miles Head Start, I would go to Subway and work night shift.” Ms. Thompson wouldn’t leave Subway until midnight or later, would sometimes have to do homework until 3 or 4 a.m. and then be back up at 6 a.m. to start all over again. She also had a night class Tuesdays from 6 to 8:50, so it wasn’t unusual for workweeks, including her internship, to exceed 80 hours. Through it all, Ms. Thompson said some people doubted that she would finish her degree. Among those who believed in her were her daughters who, she said, tell her, “We knew you would do it.” Most importantly, Ms. Thompson believed in herself. “You know, it’s like a dream come true,” she said. “You know how people become millionaires, a dream come true? Well, to me, this is like a millionaire life to me, having a degree. I mean money couldn’t even beat this degree.” Next up for Ms. Thompson is more education. She has applied to Western Kentucky University and UT Knoxville, hoping to begin graduate school this fall. She wants to earn a master’s degree before she begins working and to also take advantage of her current motivation. As with anything that Ms. Thompson has attempted, it won’t be easy. The UT degree is offered online but requires travel to Nashville one Saturday per month. The WKU degree would mean even more travel and both degrees require internships. Her goal is to complete her master’s degree in a year to that she can fulfill her ultimate “dream to help troubled teens and adolescents.” Cindy West, chair of the UT Martin Department of Behavioral Sciences and associate professor of social work, sees Ms. Thompson’s blend of “social-work knowledge, skills, values and personal-life experiences” creating a “dynamic combination” that will serve her well as she pursues her career. “Menta will not let others give up on themselves,” Ms. West said. “She will be there to be supportive and encouraging as they seek to reach their goals.” Shortly before graduation, Ms. Thompson faced one final challenge in her college experience. Although she would graduate, a procedural problem would prevent her name from being included in the commencement program. However, almost as if meant to be, circumstances later came together that allowed her name to be added before the program went to press. When she learned in a telephone call that her name would be included, she said she “sat there and cried for 15, 20 minutes.” Ms. Thompson worked harder than anyone will ever know to earn her place among UT Martin’s December 2009 graduates. Her name on Page 10 of the commencement program proved, once again, that dreams do come true. Editor’s note: Bud Grimes is director of University Relations at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Published in The Messenger 12.24.09

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