Tonya Mutter started her quest for an occupational therapy assistant degree at Jackson State Community in June 2018. She knew that she needed an education so she could get a job that paid enough to support her family and to help her save for retirement.
“I was tired of struggling,” said Mutter, who has five children ages 12, 14, 16, 18 and 22.
She and her husband were doing fine, she said, until he died in a car accident in 2008. Since then, Mutter has tried to support her family on low-paying and part-time jobs that included being a pre-kindergarten assistant, school bus driver and working on a farm harvesting and packing produce.
Her ticket back to school was the Tennessee Reconnect program that provides free tuition to adults who have a high school diploma and are seeking a two-year associate degree or post-secondary certification.
Mutter’s story of her struggle and her return to school also caught the attention of the Jackson Area Business and Professional Women who plan to award Mutter the Margaret Faulkner Scholarship this year during the Sterling Awards ceremony April 2.
“We were so impressed with Tonya’s determination to get her degree and take care of her family that we increased the scholarship to $2,000,” said Jacque Hillman, Jackson Area BPW president and Scholarship Chair. The organization is also promoting Mutter to other groups, including the Business and Professional Women of Tennessee, who have scholarship opportunities for women who return to college.
Mutter was still deciding what career she wanted when her first child was born premature with cerebral palsy. She put aside her own plans to take care of him.
In an essay she wrote to earn the Jackson BPW scholarship, she said:
“While I gave up on my dreams of attending college, my husband was able to complete his education for machine, tool, and die. We were a happy couple, working together to raise our children – the idea that our story would not end ‘happily ever after’ had not occurred to me. Then I found myself raising five children as a widow. In the blink of an eye, my financial situation spiraled downward to a point where providing necessities are difficult. I now use my income from two and three different jobs to pay for food and clothing essentials. I often reflect on this statement from Zig Ziglar, ‘We cannot start over, but we can begin now, and make a new beginning.'”
Mutter decided to work in health care as an occupational therapy assistant because she wants a career that helps others. “My son’s medical needs, along with my own, have impressed upon me a great desire to help others recover from disabilities and inspire them to enjoy life as much as possible,” she wrote in her essay.
“I can make decent money as an occupational therapy assistant and I don’t have to go to school as long,” said Mutter, who is enjoying her Jackson State classes. She feels her degree will lead to a job that also allows her to invest in her retirement. Because of her son’s cerebral palsy, she added, “It will never be just me. I want to provide the best I can for him – and for the rest of my family.”