Samford University The BelltowerSeptember 2004

A Strong Family: Single Mom Shines at Samford

“…‘Many people in America don’t have basic financial skills,’ she said with the authority of one who knows how hard many families work to realize their dreams. ‘When you’re left to raise four children you struggle, you get behind, you make choices--some tougher than others--you sacrifice’…”

Carlissa Strong ’04 found Samford University at the end of a search process that included lots of prayer, especially after she saw Samford’s tuition rates. "God," she asked, “are you sure this is where I am supposed to go?". The Virginia Beach native and single mother of four enrolled at Samford as much out of faith as out of any concrete plan for affording college. But, she said, “God made a way for me to go to Samford.” It was tough going, no doubt, but as she worked and proved herself scholarships began to ease the way. A scholarship brought international study within her reach. A scholarship from Student Ministries helped her afford the January term course she needed to graduate on time. A prestigious Colonial Properties Academic Excellence Scholarship provided a free apartment for one year. The support added up to reward the faith and hard work of an aptly named student.

Belonging
Strong, a business major, was often uncomfortably aware that she was not the typical Samford student. She credits one professor in particular, John Venable, for reminding her that she was part of the Samford community. “He made me feel like I belonged when many times I felt like I didn't,” she said. It was still difficult being a full-time student, often with a daughter and three sons in tow. “But,” she said, “the difficulty was eased with the help of students on campus.” They played with her children and cared for them while she was in class and even took them to the Samford football and basketball games she never was able to attend herself. “The football players make great babysitters,” she said.

Strong said her children had such a positive experience at Samford that they want to return as students. “My daughter Ashlee will be a candidate in four years,” she said. “I feel like I have to start saving now, but I have made her aware of the scholarship opportunities that are available for her to work toward. She makes good grades and is up to the challenge.”

Ashlee’s mother was up to the challenge, too, distinguishing herself both in and out of the classroom. In addition to her studies, she founded a Samford chapter of Students In Free Enterprise [SIFE], which helps students develop leadership, teamwork and communication skills through learning, practicing and teaching the principles of free enterprise. Under her leadership, Samford’s 2001-02 SIFE Team won Honorable Mention for its Responsible Use of Credit project, and was named Rookie of the Year in regional competition. The following year’s projects, including the creation of a volunteer website and growing relationships with Cornerstone Schools of Alabama and the YMCA, earned the team First Runner-Up honors in that year’s competition.

Strong also made time to participate in Diversity University, an independent, eight-week program that brought together students from Birmingham area colleges for frank discussions about race and ethnicity, sexuality, culture, and religion. She says she felt a unique responsibility to participate. “I fit into many diverse categories but I wanted to voice my thoughts as a single mother,” she said. “Many people stereotype us and fail to realize our capabilities.” Diversity University’s challenging schedule of weeknight sessions proved to be too much for some participants, but the Strong family was honored for perfect attendance.

Dreams
Facing a tough job market when she graduated last spring, Strong spent seven months providing financial information to underserved communities as a Volunteer in Service to America in the national Americorps program. She now works for a bank but hopes to continue teaching others about the principals of finance. “Many people in America don’t have basic financial skills,” she said with the authority of one who knows how hard many families work to realize their dreams. “When you’re left to raise four children you struggle, you get behind, you make choices--some tougher than others--you sacrifice.”

Carlissa Strong continues to pursue her own dreams--to be debt-free, to raise her children well and to continue serving others. She also hopes to earn a master’s degree in urban economics. If that leads to a Ph.D., she said, she might even end up among the faculty of Samford University’s School of Business. “I know I can make a difference there because a difference was made in my life.”

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