“I’ve been on my own since I was 17,” says Anna Burnett, who is now in her mid-fifties with children and grandchildren. As of December 2014, she is also a proud graduate of Rappahannock Community College. With her Associate of Arts and Sciences degree and General Education certificate in hand, she was able to transfer most of her credits to the bachelor’s degree program at Walden University, where she is studying child development in children and adolescents. “I’m finishing up my first course,” she says, “and I feel confident that I will complete this level of my education.” She hopes to graduate from Walden in 2016.
Burnett’s current achievements represent a triumph over adverse circumstances. An unplanned pregnancy forced her to drop out of high school at 16, and six years later she began using addictive drugs. But at age 35, “I checked myself into a clinic and got clean,” Burnett declares. “I knew that if I tried drugs one more time, I’d be back into the life again” — so instead, she “got involved in church, taking care of the kids, going to their games. I had no time for drugs,” she concludes. “I was busy living.” She gives much of the credit to her husband (now deceased), whom she describes as a kind and gentle person: “He took care of me — he never judged me, only helped to keep me safe and took care of my kids. God sent him.”
In an effort to improve her prospects, Burnett tried several times to earn her GED. But, she says, “My mind wasn’t into it,” until a friend of hers decided to take the class. This was the impetus she needed to enroll again: “What a big step!” she says.
“This was the hardest task of my life. I had been out of school for twenty-odd years. Math and writing were my biggest challenges. I didn’t realize how much I had missed [by dropping out of school].”
She describes her teachers, Judy Rowe and Melvina Robinson, as “very dedicated and loving, supportive and helpful. They continued to push me forward.” After taking the test several times, she says, “The more I failed, the more I wanted my GED — the more reason for me to go back and study even harder.” Finally, on October 11, 2011, she received an e-mail from the testing director saying that she had passed.
“My two great teachers took me out to dinner and discussed what I wanted to do next,” she recalls. “This was something that I didn’t even have to think about. I knew my next step. The following week I went to RCC and signed up for my placement test.”
Burnett enrolled at RCC for the Spring 2012 semester … quite a challenge for a woman who was then working three jobs and raising three of her grandchildren. As she was working all day, she had to take most of her classes in the evening. “My experience there was hard — biology and anatomy were the hardest—but well worth the effort,” she says. “This college has some of the greatest professors in the educational field.” She praises the Student Support Services program — “well organized, and they made sure that they tracked our every need” — naming counselor Tanya Oliver and college success coach Rebecca Miller as having been of particular help, in addition to Mary Frances Brown of RCC’s Financial Aid Office. “These great warriors helped pave the way for me through my college journey. Their doors were always open for me.”
After she earns her bachelor’s degree, Burnett’s goal is to become a behavioral specialist. “I want to be able to help kids, and to make sure they do well.” Getting an education, she expects, will enable her to cut back to just one job while still making ends meet and taking care of her family. And she hopes that her going back to school will be an inspiration to her grandchildren. Ultimately, she would like reach a wider public by telling her story in a book.
“We all fall into places in our life where we shouldn’t be,” she reflects, “but we can pick ourselves up and accomplish things. We have choices in our life, and we need to make the right choices. I fell into a bad crowd and started experimenting” — but when she made up her mind to turn her life around, “I chose to go away to make sure I got away from that crowd.” In order to make fundamental changes in your life, she emphasizes, “you have to change your playground and your playmates.”
“If I had stayed in high school back then, I would be farther along in life now,” she says. “But this is where I am. I am moving forward.”