Sawyer Radford of Maryville wanted nothing more than to go to college, but her family faced a lot of challenges when she was growing up.
Between the death of her father and the hospitalization of one of her sisters, Radford made the heartbreaking decision to withdraw from classes at Carson-Newman University and head back home to help. The 2016 William Blount High School graduate never meant for this to be a long pause, but an ongoing battle to obtain enough financial aid kept her out of college for the next 3½ years, despite being admitted to two different four-year universities.
In fall 2021, five years after she started college the first time, Radford enrolled in the teacher education program at Pellissippi State Community College. Today Radford will walk across the stage as a college graduate – and a magna cum laude graduate, at that.
Pellissippi State’s Commencement Ceremony will be held today (12/09/22) at 6 p.m. at the Knoxville Convention Center, 701 Henley Street. Radford is one of 209 students who graduated from Pellissippi State over the summer, when the college does not hold a Commencement Ceremony. Another 509 students will graduate from Pellissippi State this fall.
“It’s been amazing,” said Radford, who just completed her first semester at Tennessee Tech University with all As. “I have loved all my professors. I haven’t ever felt like I couldn’t ask a question or ask for help. They are smiling faces – friendly, encouraging – that really want you to be the best teacher you can be.”
Radford used the time she was unable to attend college to explore her career options. Thanks to church friends, Radford had the opportunity to ride in an ambulance and to shadow teachers, nurses and insurance professionals at their jobs.
“I volunteered in a third-grade classroom three days a week, and I fell in love with teaching,” Radford said. “I got a full-time job as a preschool teacher, and I worked there for two years. When they put me with the 5-year-olds in the kindergarten readiness class, I loved it. They were awesome.”
Radford knew she wouldn’t be able to balance full-time preschool teaching with full-time college classes, so she took a job as nanny to seven children who range in age from 4 to 17. Still, she made time to serve as co-vice president of Pellissippi State’s chapter of the Student Tennessee Education Association.
“I loved the thought of having a voice in the teacher education program, to give input and plan events like our first-year teacher panel and a diversity panel,” Radford said. “I’m also a helper by nature. I love being able to make things happen.”
Radford’s background has given her a gift not all teachers have: the ability to see signs that children are struggling in their home lives so that she can intervene on their behalf, said Laura Lawson, assistant professor and teacher education program coordinator for Pellissippi State.
“My childhood helped me know what to look for to keep as many kids as possible from falling through the cracks,” said Radford, who at one time lived with a supportive high school teacher. “I am able to be an advocate for kids.”
Radford started the 2+2 program with Tennessee Tech this fall. This program allows teacher education students to finish their bachelor’s degrees through the four-year university by taking classes on Pellissippi State’s Hardin Valley Campus.
“I already loved Tennessee Tech’s education program, but the 2+2 program meant I didn’t have to uproot and move to Cookeville.”
Although Radford’s college journey has not looked like what she planned, she offers advice to others:
“The biggest thing to remember is that society’s agenda is not your agenda. It was hard for me because I felt like I needed to graduate with my bachelor’s in 2020, and I’m just now getting my associate degree. But there is no way you can compare your story to anyone else’s story. My motto is ‘If it’s important to you, you can do it. You will get it done.’”
Lesli Bales-Sherrod does marketing and writing for Pellissippi State Community College.