Volume X, Issue 3 | June 12, 2024

Completing the Picture 

Michaela Sheppard Williams went back to college after a 17-year hiatus. An undiagnosed learning disability had kept her from graduating, but she was determined to finish what she’d begun. And she did!

SMC In Focus




Ask Michaela Sheppard to talk about herself, and she offers up a big smile.

"My life is like a puzzle jigsaw," she says. "All of the pieces, they just kind of fit together, you know? One experience leads to the next."

Michaela graduated this Spring with an Associate degree in Liberal Arts: Arts and Humanities and an Associate degree in Film Studies. But for the longest time, a college education remained that one piece of the puzzle that eluded her.

Her college journey began in the early 2000s, when Michaela was determined to become the first in her family to earn a college degree. But when an undiagnosed learning disorder prevented her from completing graduation requirements, the resulting anxiety and lack of confidence, Michaela says, prompted her to put her plans on hold indefinitely.

"So I had all of these credits but no degree," she explains. "And then things started happening — people kept getting sick, life kept going on. It just became an excuse not to go back."

Those years found Michaela grappling with an entire gamut of challenges and responsibilities. As the eldest child, she became the de facto second parent for her mother and father's separate households. That meant helping with the bills, looking after her siblings, and caring for family members when they fell ill. 

"You just step up," Michaela says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. "This is what you do."

Her experiences as a caretaker — especially for her father and grandparents, who were diagnosed with cancer —  made Michaela realize that she could help with the bills by taking care of others. After starting as an in-home health worker, she took the plunge and became a certified nursing assistant.

Throughout it all, that one missing puzzle piece continued to bother Michaela. She had started college, and she really wanted to finish it. But when she finally looked into the possibility, Michaela wondered if perhaps the college landscape might have changed too much for her after 17 years.

"I'm older, friend," she shares with a bright laugh. "And my priorities are different than those my first time around."

Those priorities — including her family, husband and full-time job as a certified nurse assistant — were foremost in Michaela's mind when she finally made up her mind. She knew she'd need help if she was going to get her degree. So when she met with SMC counselor Alejandra Viveros for the first time, she laid out her circumstances upfront.

"I told her: Hey, here's my situation," Michaela recalls. "I work full-time, I'm starting a family, and I have a learning disability. Can you help?"

The response, Michaela says, was precisely what she needed. After reviewing her academic history, Alejandra went above and beyond to ensure she had everything she needed.

"I was so blessed I met Alejandra,” says Michaela. “She was on top of everything — helping me petition, making sure I kept up with dates and deadlines. She was just amazing.”

Michaela adds that, throughout her time at SMC, she was encouraged to make the most of student programs and resources such as the Black Collegians Umoja Community. "I'm not sure I would have had the same experience at any other school," she notes.

Her advice to others is to look past any bad beginnings and see things through to the end. "Don't let how you started dictate how you finish," she says. "Even if your progress is slow, keep at it."

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