Originally posted in Rutgers Today

They live together. They attend school together, and in May, mother-daughter Latonya Johnson and Laila Birchett are graduating together from Rutgers School of Social Work.

“My family – my kids, my mom and dad – everyone is proud because it’s two generations going to college together,” said Johnson, 43. “I never thought in a million years, I’d be going to school with my daughter and graduating in the same college and major. It’s kind of surreal but it has brought us closer because we connected on a level that I never thought I’d connect with my kids.”

She and Birchett, 21, both transferred to Rutgers in September 2022 from Middlesex College and Montclair State University respectively.

At the time, Birchett was a psychology major with no clear vision of her career path. She just knew she wanted to enter a field that allowed her to help others, especially the homeless or the elderly. Johnson was already helping others as a certified alcohol and drug counselor, but she wanted to complete her education, a life-long goal that kept getting postponed.  

“My first college course was in 1999,” said Johnson, a divorced mother of six, whose children range in age from 4 to 26. “From 1999 to now, I’ve attempted to go back six different times, but I was unsuccessful. I didn’t have the proper time management because I was a wife, a mother and working full time.” 

She realized the only way to finish her education was to go back to school full-time. That meant giving up her full-time job for a part-time position. The decision was frightening because it meant scaling back her income while taking on additional student-loan debt.

She credits the Rutgers community with getting her through it – the programs for non-traditional, first-generation students; the mentoring; the sisterhood at Douglass Residential College but especially the available scholarships. Johnson said programs like the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) and Thrive SSS provided the extra support she needed. “If it weren’t for those scholarships, I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” Johnson said.

“College is my lifeline,” added Johnson, who has been working at Rutgers’ suicide prevention Hopeline since last July. "The same way it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to support a nontraditional student."

Birchett has noticed all her mother’s hard work. 

“Her journey has been truly inspiring,” Birchett said. “It’s encouraged me to work harder in college.”

Johnson knew that she’d eventually want to obtain her master’s degree in social work. She started looking at schools that offered an accelerated program in social work where students can obtain their master’s degrees within a year of graduating. Johnson started going on college tours and Birchett came along. Johnson settled on Rutgers. In some ways, her decision was an easy one to make. The school, considered one of the best in the country, is close to her North Brunswick home, has a diverse population, and offers an Advanced Standing program, allowing her a fast track to her master’s degree. 

On those school tours and in conversations with her mom, Birchett learned more about the field and realized that social work, rather than psychology, is more aligned with the career she envisioned for herself. 

In their time at Rutgers, they took only one class together, and they rarely studied together because of their schedules. But they relied on one another. Birchett gave her mother tech support, helping her navigate the various computer programs that a college student now uses. Johnson helped her daughter better understand her schoolwork, providing her with the real-life experience and knowledge that a college student can use. 

In another way, Johnson was like Birchett’s guidance counselor, encouraging her to pursue her master’s degree telling her it’s easier and quicker to do now at 21 rather than later in life. 

“‘Go for your master’s because I’m telling you from my experience, you can have more opportunities, you can evolve and make more money,’” Johnson recalls telling her daughter. “‘I’m telling you what no one told me.’”

Birchett listened to her mother’s advice. The duo plans to enter the master of social work program at Rutgers later this year.

“I feel she’s always been someone I can look up to because, like she said, when she was my age, her parents didn’t understand the college process. I think without her, I’d be truly lost.”

Birchett admits that it was a bit strange to go to the same school as her mother, who can connect with others more easily than she can. But it was Birchett who helped her mother find a community at Rutgers. When Birchett attended a program for transfer students, she learned about Douglass Residential College. 

“When they told me about Douglass, I said, ‘Yes, this is what I’ve been looking for’ because I really wanted to find a sense of community. It was really welcoming.”

She encouraged her mom to join, and they both ended up with the same mentor, Madinah Elamin, senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Douglass. Elamin told Johnson about scholarships, helped her with class schedules and setting goals, and introduced her to the Bunting Program for nontraditional students. 

“I’m making a 4.0 and I’m proud," Johnson said. "I remember one time someone said to me, ‘Nobody cares about the GPA nowadays,’ and I said, ‘For me that means everything because you don’t know my story.’ It matters to me. There is so much behind that. I know how far I’ve come and what it will mean for my family.”