Mother, daughter inspire each other to graduate college
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It's been 22 years, and Cassandra Clark still remembers the fear.
"My mother is going to kill me," the 44-year-old said, reliving the moment she learned she was pregnant. "I went home and cried. I felt like I had disappointed my mom and God."
Clark was 23 years old then and had two years invested in a university degree. She'd long dreamed of her cap-and-gown moment, when she'd glide across the stage on graduation day and accept her handshake and leather-bound diploma.
Clark also envisioned herself matriculating at law school and becoming a legal cog in a national organization of women attorneys.
Pregnancy meant sidelining her future and possibly giving up her dreams altogether.
"I was told that no one will want me ... and I considered abortion and adoption. Even a family member wanted me to abort her," said Clark, remembering the tough decisions she made about keeping her daughter, Stormy Clark. "But I was a Christian. I was raised in a very strict religious background, and I just knew I wasn't supposed to have the abortion."
Stormy, as it turns out, would be Clark's motivation to earn a college degree, alongside her daughter, 22 years later.
The mother-daughter pair graduated from two universities last month within 24 hours of each other.
"She drove to Huntsville to come to my graduation at Sam Houston State that night, and the next morning we got up and drove to Katy for her graduation ceremony at UHV," said Stormy, 21.
But it wasn't an easy road for the Clark women to earn degrees. And without each other, neither would have made it across the stage.
When Clark withdrew from Tarleton State University, she knew the return home to Bay City would be a difficult transition. She was on the brink of a college education, and a future away from the abuse and emotional turmoil she grew up with in Bay City.
But without alternative options, Clark decided to put her dreams on hold and move home with her mother. Clark said at the time of her pregnancy, her relationship with her mother was stressed, which further disrupted the environment of the home and family, one Clark describes as plagued with generational poverty and physical and emotional abuse. Clark's own mother was battered many years by her stepfather, who was later killed by Clark's mother years before in an act of self-defense.
"He didn't hit me . and she never served any time for it," Clark said, remembering how her mother could at times be abusive and controlling herself. "I think a lot of the anger and resentment that came from her was that I took away my mama's dreams. She wanted to go to school and be a nurse, and she got pregnant with me."
But as time went on, the women were able to mend some of their relationship problems.
When Stormy was born a healthy baby girl, Clark said, her maternal instincts surged and she prepared herself for a new path as a mother. But she knew neither her mother nor Stormy's father, were in a place to help Clark raise a child.
"I just prayed, 'OK, God, bring some people in my life to help me take care of this kid because I can't do it on my own,'" she said.
IF I CAN'T, YOU CAN
Soon after her daughter was born, Clark met another man who would father her second child.
Seventeen months later, Clark gave birth once again, this time to a boy, Dre'Shaun.
"I wasn't thinking, and I made a lot of bad choices then," she said. "You just get sidetracked."
Clark eventually found herself a single woman in her mid-20s with two small children and no money or education.
Her financial struggles multiplied, and to survive, she said she went on welfare and accepted government housing. She continued to work, accepting odd jobs to feed her children.
"At that time, school was definitely off the table. I was just trying to survive and eat. I was so depressed. I couldn't even get off the couch some days," Clark said. "I remember Stormy at 3 years old bringing me a hot dog weenie to try and feed me because she knew something was wrong. She was always smart."
As the children aged, Clark rekindled her passion for education. She realized if she couldn't attend college, the best thing she could do is provide a quality education for her children.
The family of three moved a few miles outside Victoria, and Clark said she enrolled Stormy in an advanced education-driven daycare program.
"We didn't have a car, so I'd walk Stormy six miles to school every day, and I'd carry Dre'Shaun," Clark said. "I was going to make sure my baby goes to school. So we would get up every morning and walk this girl to school, whether it was raining or hot or whatever. I'd go home and rest and turn around and walk to pick her up again."
In her late 20s, Clark enrolled in a few classes at Victoria College. Credits from previous coursework transferred, but not many, and she was essentially starting from zero.
"I'd take a class here and there, but I don't think I was thinking about graduating anymore," she said. "I still had to work, and we didn't have a lot of money, so Stormy would come to class with me a lot then."
Clark said her primary focus was raising and supporting two children then. And though she continued to take college classes through the years, she began shifting her own dreams of college on her children, and started encouraging Stormy to excel in as many areas as she could.
"She always wanted the best for me and pushed me to be what she considered my best," Stormy said.
After years of listening to her mother emphasize education, Stormy entered high school and came into her own passion for academics.
"I think I realized my freshman year in high school that my whole life is based off those grades," said Stormy, who qualified for a scholarship to Faith Academy and decided to transfer from Memorial High School. "I transferred to Faith because the education was lacking at Memorial at the time."
Stormy found her niche at Faith Academy. She said she thrived in the family-first environment and went on to be valedictorian of her 2009 graduating class.
"I was so proud of her. I would not be surprised if that girl becomes the next Supreme Court judge," Clark chuckled. "They've always been better than me. And I always told my kids to not make the same mistakes I did. I told them to look at my life and do the exact opposite."
Meanwhile, Stormy, now old enough to be her mother's encourager, was beginning to take on her mother's role of motivating her to the finish line.
Clark, who began working at the University of Houston-Victoria in 2007, was offered an employment benefit that allowed her to take one free class per semester. Though she didn't attend every semester, she was approaching the end of her degree when Stormy graduated high school.
Stormy began school at Sam Houston State University to study criminal justice and fast tracked her degree to finish in three and a half years.
Clark said she never thought they'd graduate in the same semester.
"Stormy is a big competitor. I would get tired with school, and Stormy would call and encourage me to keep going," she said. "If I couldn't find materials for papers or I needed something, she would help me."
"I knew it was one of those things that was holding her back," said Stormy, about her mother's two-decade long journey to graduate college. "It seemed minor, but it was still a big deal for her."
Clark and Stormy knew the timing of the degrees could fall together, but they assumed they'd graduate a few semesters apart.
"She just wanted to graduate before me," said Clark, smiling. "On her graduation hat it said 'I beat my mama.'"
Stormy did beat her mother to graduation - but only by about 12 hours.
On Dec. 14, Clark drove to Huntsville to watch her daughter's graduation, and the next morning, they drove to Katy for Clark's graduation.
The pair had a small lunch celebration at Joe's Crab Shack and relished in their victories together.
Clark said after 20 years of trying for the same degree, she realized her dreams from years ago had shifted somewhat.
"At that point, I almost think I didn't do it for me. I did it for my mom and my kids because now they don't look at me as a failure," Clark said.
But Stormy said she never considered her mom a failure. She was a woman who worked hard to give her a better life than what she had.
With college degrees, they are re-evaluating and dreaming big for the future.
Stormy has accepted a position with AmeriCorps, where she will carry out a mission of public service for at least one year.
Clark, who received a degree in general business with health care administration focus, said she hopes to continue moving up the career ladder as well.
"I think the message is that anything with perseverance is possible. It's about not giving up and staying goal oriented because in the end if you want it bad enough it will happen," Stormy said. "I'm just so proud of her."
Clark agreed. But she also knows her success came from a divine God who wouldn't let her fail and a daughter who encouraged her to the finish line.
"Now, looking back, I realize my purpose was Stormy," Clark said. "I don't know what God's plan is for me, but I know it's something big."