Flint, MI– Twelve years ago, LaRonda Sanders decided she would earn her college degree to set an example for her three sons.
Last week, she did it.
On April 29, 2022, Sanders, 48, walked across the stage in a black cap and gown for the University of Michigan-Flint’s graduation ceremony.
After more than a decade of night classes after work, online courses, completing assignments at her sons’ sports practices, and hitting “submit” at 11:59 p.m., she earned her bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration.
When she decided to go back to school in 2010, two of her sons were still in high school. After raising them with reminders to keep their grades up and go to college, she decided she needed to “walk the walk.”
But somewhere along the way, Sanders found that she wasn’t just going back to school for her sons. She was going for herself.
A better life
Sanders was born and raised in Flint, Mich., primarily by her grandmother, who only had an elementary school education.
She had her first child when she was 17 years old and was pregnant with her second son all before graduating from high school. She got married when she was 19 and had her third son by the time she was 20.
Her plans to start college right out of high school were stalled, and within a couple of years, she and her husband got divorced. After that, he wasn’t in the picture, and she had to raise her three children alone.
“I had to take care of them, so I dropped out,” Sanders said.
Once her children were a little older (her oldest was 10), she tried to return to school in 2001, but it was tough. She said her classes took too much time away from her children, and she decided to focus on raising them instead.
Even though she hadn’t completed college and nobody else in her family had, she knew she needed to instill the importance of education in her sons.
“Make sure you go to college,” she’d tell them. “Make sure you get…good grades. Make sure you behave in school.”
Sanders prayed that God would change her family’s trajectory and pushed her children to work hard because she wanted something better for them.
“We saw a lot of drug abuse, a lot of alcoholism in my family, as well as in the environment,” Sanders said. “And I just didn’t want that for them. I wanted better for them. So that’s what I pushed for because I just wanted to see them have a better life.”
Her youngest son, Chris Sanders, 27, can attest to her pushing.
“Education has always been super important, really ever since I could remember,” he said. With how his mother talked about going to college, he said it didn’t even feel like a question for him.
“It almost felt like I always was going to,” Chris said. “She was always encouraging us and letting us know, like, whatever we wanted to go for, it was within our reach. And that’s kind of just how she always made me feel.”
Chris graduated from Central Michigan University twice. He earned his bachelor’s degree in communication and a master’s degree in higher education administration. He now works as the assistant director in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Michigan Technological University.
Sanders’ middle son, Jaquel Sanders, graduated from Ferris State University. Her oldest son, Latarrel Sanders, earned a G.E.D. after dropping out of high school in his senior year– an accomplishment she said she is equally proud of.
Around the same time that Latarrel got his G.E.D., Sanders decided it was time for her to go back to school too. Her sons were older, with her middle child being a senior in high school.
“I said, ‘Alright. I need to be an example.’ You got to walk the walk. You can’t just talk the talk,” Sanders said.
In 2010, she enrolled at UM-Flint and began pursuing her degree in healthcare administration in hopes of one day becoming a patient advocate.
For twelve years, Sanders walked the walk.
She worked 45 to 50 hours a week as a pharmacy technician and took night classes when she got home. Each semester, Sanders took two classes at a time until the last two semesters when she took three.
When she first started going to school, she took her classes on campus. She remembers handwriting her assignments and not having to do any online discussion boards, but over the years, that changed.
Eventually, she began taking classes online. Sunday nights were for finishing her assignments, sometimes submitting them at 11:59 p.m. just before they were due. When her sons had sports practice, Sanders was there with her laptop doing her school work.
“Of course, it got easier when they were in college,” she said.
But she still had to get used to managing her time, not procrastinating, and remembering her online classes.
“I don’t know why the first two weeks of every online semester when I was online, I would always forget I was online,” Sanders said. “My best friend was like, ‘Ronda, remember, you’re in school.'”
For most of the twelve years, Sanders was in school, but she had a few setbacks.
When her brother died, she stayed out of school for two semesters. The following year, her mother died too. That time around, she decided not to take time off.
“I didn’t want to do that again because I know how grief could just pull you into a place,” she said. “And so I just said, let me go ahead. And I knew she was proud of me too. So that kind of helped keep me pushing.”
She earned a 4.0 GPA that semester.
Further down the line, Sanders needed to take a couple of semesters off again after running into some financial hardships and not being able to afford tuition. She was able to go back after being contacted about a UM-Flint program called “Pathways to Completion,” which funded three semesters of school for her.
At this point, Sanders had reached her goal of inspiring her children to go to college. But getting her degree wasn’t about them anymore– she wanted to accomplish this for herself.
A sense of pride
When Sanders was a child, she wanted to be a lawyer.
“Which was crazy,” Sanders said, laughing. “Because I’m extremely shy. Then at one point, I wanted to go into early childhood education. But just through working at the pharmacy, I just found that I liked helping people.”
When she enrolled at UM-Flint, her goal was to become a patient advocate inspired by her work at the pharmacy.
“I have a lot of patients that come see me, and they don’t really know a lot about health insurance and health plans and how to handle business, and sometimes the insurance companies just tell them anything just to get them to leave them alone,” Sanders said.
Sanders said she spends a lot of time calling different places and pushing to help patients get what they need.
“So I wanted to try to do something in that vein to try to help people,” Sanders said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Sanders found herself learning about it in school.
“One of the things that we started to talk about a lot was access to care. It really kind of put a light on how there isn’t as much access in certain areas as in others,” Sanders said. “We really got a chance to see … how in more affluent areas, they were able to get a little better hold on (the pandemic), as opposed to rural and urban areas.”
While she hopes to use her knowledge and degree to work as a patient advocate, she said that finishing school was about more than just finding a job.
“I knew I wanted to finish more than getting the job,” she said. “I have something I started, and I just wanted to get it done. You know, to say, ‘I did this.'”
Sanders and her sons were the first people in her family to graduate from college. Together they had to learn to navigate the application process, go on college tours, and apply for financial aid.
For Sanders, being among the first in her family to graduate from college was a significant accomplishment.
“It gives me a sense of pride. Sometimes you don’t want to say that because you (don’t want to be boastful), but I’m proud of myself,” she said. “I worked hard. I did it. I’m proud of myself for seeing it through.”
Her accomplishments set in on her graduation day.
“I was a little misty. I didn’t know if I was going to be super emotional or what but, I was okay. I was just sitting there like, ‘It’s finally happening,” she said.
Her sons, Chris and Latarrel, sat in the audience and watched their mom with pride.
“It was exciting, you know. I think it was more surreal for her when she walked across the stage. Once you finally walk, it’s like, ‘I’m finally done,'” Latarrel said.
He said that during the ceremony, graduates were told that it was a big accomplishment for them to continue through school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So to still keep your job and still pursue going to school through that Corona hurdle, that’s an achievement in itself,” Latarrel said.
Chris said it was nice to have the chance to support his mom.
“She was always in the crowd supporting me for my whole life, whether it was sports, graduating from high school, or college, or whatever,” he said. “She’s my mom, so of course, she’s going to celebrate my accomplishments, but it felt really good to kind of pay that back.”
After going to college and working in higher education, Chris said he realized how hard his mom worked to get her degree.
“Just knowing the things that she sacrificed, going to night classes after work, and having to pay out of pocket for some classes at times, those are things that I didn’t experience in my college journey. I could just kind of see sometimes what tolls it took on her,” said Chris, who now lives about eight hours away. “So when she let us know this was the semester she was finishing, there wasn’t any way I wasn’t going to drive down to see her walk across that stage.”
Latarrel said his mom’s achievement inspired him to try to go back to school when he’s financially able to, and he hopes his daughters will be motivated to go to college too.
“For me, it’s like an inspiration to not just automatically quit once a situation gets difficult,” he said.
Sanders said her advice to parents is to be an example for their kids.
“It’s important that we lead by example, not just in going to school, but in everything,” Sanders said. “It was hard, but I made it, and I didn’t come from the best background. I wasn’t in prime circumstances. But it doesn’t matter what your background is. You can push through, and you can make it.”