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Mother-child duos earn ULM degrees

Published May 13, 2022

Gabby and Shannon Ballew smile at the camera, wearing their caps and gowns in front of the ULM library.

“It’s never too late.”

Those are the same words spoken by two different mothers in two separate interviews when asked about their upcoming graduation from the University of Louisiana Monroe on Saturday, May 14. Joining them during the commencement ceremonies are their children, who are also receiving degrees from ULM.

Shannon Dozier Ballew and Krisha Williams will each receive a Master of Arts in Teaching, while Ballew’s daughter Gabby Ballew will receive a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and Williams’ son Tavier Williams will receive a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. Despite obstacles and struggles, all four persevered to finish their education.

Before attending ULM, Shannon married at 19, had her first child Emily at 22, and became a full-time, stay-at-home mother. When her second child Peyton went to kindergarten, she decided to become a paraprofessional at Kiroli Elementary to assist with the transition for her son who has autism.

“It wasn’t long after I started working at Kiroli when I thought, ‘I have missed my calling.’ I was supposed to be a teacher all these years,” Shannon said.

Shannon continued to help in her son’s classroom as a paraprofessional, but was forced to make a life-changing choice when her circumstances changed.

“I had always wanted to go to college. I had intended to go to college,” Shannon said. “But after my divorce I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ I have no degree. I have three children.”

She found herself facing a decision. Should she quit the job she loved as a paraprofessional to earn more money at a different workplace to provide for her family? Or, should she lean into her calling, pursue a college degree, and become a full-time educator?

At 37 years old, Shannon first enrolled at ULM and began working toward her undergraduate degree. Shannon’s daughter Gabby was in second grade at the time. She recalls “playing school” with her siblings in Strauss Hall while her mother studied.

“I grew up here. I’ve been coming up here since I was 7, 8 years old, so I was familiar with campus already,” Gabby recalled.

Because Shannon was working full-time and raising three children, it took 11 years of night school and online classes to earn her bachelor’s degree from ULM. With a deep love of learning, Shannon continued her education to pursue her master’s. When it came time for Gabby to graduate from West Monroe High School, Shannon encouraged her to choose ULM.

“As a high school senior, I remember coming to Browse on the Bayou and I was on cloud nine. I was so ready to be accepted,” Gabby said. “I get to stay at home and stay local. I’m really thankful to be in a town where there is a prestigious university.”

Gabby took full advantage of being a traditional, full-time freshman. She joined Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, sang in the ULM Choir and with the help of her professors, interned at KTVE during her last semester. After four years, Gabby will graduate alongside her mother.

“Watching her be motivated to finish the program and get to where we are right now has been the inspiration I needed to get through my bachelor’s degree,” Gabby said. “I’ve learned from her particularly that I’m going to have my tough days. I’ve learned from her to push forward and to finish what you start. That’s something we’ve all been raised to believe. Once you start something, you finish it. I’ve lived that all my life.”

Thanks to ULM’s generous scholarships, ULM talent grants and TOPS, Gabby will graduate debt-free.

“I have never paid one dime the whole time she’s been at ULM,” Shannon said. “Her hard work has definitely paid off.”

Krisha and Tavier Williams pose in their caps and gowns.Shannon’s classmate Krisha Williams is also graduating at the same time as her child. A native of Many, Krisha was a volunteer substitute teacher before she earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern State University in 2019. She now teaches 7th grade math at Many Junior High, where she was named Teacher of the Year for the school and Sabine Parish Middle School Teacher of the Year last year. Krisha and her husband have five children - three of which who are Division I student-athletes. Krisha decided to pursue her Master of Arts in Teaching with a concentration in moderate special education.

“ULM has helped me achieve my life’s goal,” she said. “It’s never too late. There are many resources available. There are professors who are willing to help.”

Krisha’s son Tavier will follow in his mother’s footsteps by pursuing a Master of Science in Psychology from ULM in the fall. A dean’s list member and a defensive back for the Warhawks, Tavier will continue to play for the football team and work toward becoming a counselor for future student-athletes.

“I had to learn how to juggle the stress of school and the stress of football. You have to learn how to prioritize your time, which is the reason why I went into psychology,” he said. “The physical health of your body is what’s always demanded, but I think what needs to be stressed is that your mental health is just as important, if not more.”

He said that his mother, who often brought her iPad to the football stands to do homework, models the importance of good mental health.

“I’m really proud of her for finishing,” Tavier said. “I try to follow her lead. She’s always stressed that athletics can be taken from you at any moment, but what you learn in your mind can never be taken from you.”

Now that both Krisha and Tavier are armed with college degrees, they both want to give back in their careers.

“We stress that whatever your gift is, use that gift to contribute to the world,” Krisha said. “Do whatever it takes to fulfill your dreams and reach back to help someone else. We can let them see the glory that you have your degree, but you need to share your story with them. Share that it wasn’t easy. There were many nights I sat at the table and stressed over papers. I love that he would call or text to encourage me, and that I could do that same for him.”

When reflecting on what he has learned at ULM and what he has learned from his mother, Tavier emphasized the importance of perseverance.

“I’ve learned to keep pursuing. Don’t stop. Don’t ever quit, no matter how hard the work is,” he said. “Make the time to keep going and keep pressing. It’s really never too late to finish, which she helped me learn.”