Stephanie Cooper-Stewart emigrated from Jamaica in May 2009, leaving behind a good job, her family, and everything she once knew in her home country. After nearly a year of unemployment and becoming a single mother, Cooper-Stewart learned about the opportunities at Polk State College, where she could get the education she needed to not only find employment, but to also set a positive example for her two sons.
On Dec. 13, Cooper-Stewart will receive her Associate in Arts degree during Polk State’s 119th commencement ceremony, where family and friends from Jamaica will proudly cheer her on.
“There were times that the bills couldn’t be paid, there were days that I didn’t get any sleep, and there were moments where I just cried and cried,” Cooper-Stewart says. “But there’s a song back home, ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,’ and it is.”
“I always said that I didn’t care when I finished – all that mattered was that I started,” she adds as her cell phone rings with the Bob Marley melody. “That song, my faith, my family, my determination, and the faculty and staff at Polk State allowed me to push through.”
Cooper-Stewart recalls the “culture shock” she experienced after immigrating to the U.S. She notes differences from driving lanes, to healthcare, to sheer size, pointing out that the number of incarcerated in the U.S. nears the population of the Caribbean island.
“It’s a paradigm shift. You have to adapt, focus, and rely on yourself in a country where you don’t know anyone,” she explains.
In Jamaica, she worked as a social worker in the education system for 15 years, but in the U.S. she struggled to find employment, turning in an application each day for nearly 11 months. During that time period, she participated in a nursing assistant program that allowed her to eventually gain employment in an assisted living facility.
“But I realized that I am working too hard for minimum wage, and I became a single mom, needing to work two jobs to support my children,” she says.
Through her sister-in-law, who completed a Nursing degree at Broward State College, Cooper-Stewart learned about the opportunities available at Florida’s colleges and Polk State. She decided to pursue a degree in hopes of a higher salary that would not only afford her the ability to support her family, but to also set an example for her sons to one day pursue higher education.
Cooper-Stewart aspires to get back into social work.
“Someone in the nursing home knew of my passion and asked me why I would give up on it,” she says. “That was an extra push for me to pursue my education and what I love to do.”
At Polk State, she first enrolled in developmental reading, writing, and math.
“It was a struggle being from another country and having left school 20 years ago,” she explains.
But she chipped away at her degree requirements slowly but surely, enrolling in two classes a semester and upping the number of courses she took along the way. Seventy-five percent of Polk State students attend part-time, balancing their studies with full-time jobs and raising families, like Cooper-Stewart.
She recalls many sleepless nights.
“And I don’t drink coffee,” she exclaims. “Kim Thomas (Associate Dean of Academic Affairs) knew of my situation, and one particular morning I came to class with no sleep. She noticed my eyes were dancing from fatigue and she told me to go home and get some sleep.”
In her final semesters, Cooper-Stewart has juggled working 80 hours a week with a full course load.
“I struggled a lot but when they realized I was drowning, they were patient and gave me the help I needed to keep going,” she says. “Now I am an example for my children that you can accomplish anything through hard work and determination.”
Cooper-Stewart will start on a bachelor’s degree in social work in January 2019 at Warner University.
“The journey isn’t over. There are going to be many more late nights and early mornings,” she says, noting Philippians 4:12 and her favorite song. “But everything is gonna’ be alright.”