In August 2008, Juanita Isom, 69, was encouraged by her daughter, Leesa, to go back to school and attain her master’s degree in history. After the death of her daughter, just two months later, Isom continued and earned her bachelor’s degree from Southern University. Now, she is on her way to earning her master’s degree from Florida A&M University (FAMU) in a field she and her daughter both loved, history.
“When we started this, Leesa said, ‘Mama, don’t quit! Promise me that you will keep going,” Isom said. “We weren’t thinking anything was going to happen to her. After she passed away, I could have done a lot of things, but I didn’t. I had to keep my promise to her. She told me to go as far as I could go.”
On August 5, more than 450 candidates will walk across the stage in the FAMU Alfred Lawson Jr. Multipurpose Center and Teaching Gymnasium during FAMU’s 2011 Summer Commencement Ceremony. Isom has kept her promise she once made to Leesa —she earned her master’s degree in history this summer.
The mother of four, was born in Tampa, Fla. At the age of 11, she said, is when education really took a front seat into her life. Her foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Charles Monford, were two of her biggest inspirations. In the early 1960s, she and her husband moved to New Orleans, La., where she worked as a nurse for 35 years.
“My family has always stressed education and that you are never too old to achieve your goals,” Isom said. “When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a nurse. My grandmother was a diabetic and I would love to give her shots and take care of her. As I went on, history grew on me.”
Isom, who had interned with the Meek-Eaton Southeastern Regional Black Archives Research Center and Museum, said she has met some great people during her years at the university. From her church family, to the teachers and the students, she thanks the historically black institution for its friendly atmosphere. She added that the young people seemed to be drawn to her and would ask questions about morals, principles and other advice.
“The students are very nice and respectful,” said Isom. “I was sitting outside Tucker Hall one day and a group of young boys walked by. One had used a little profanity. After he and his friends saw me, he came over and apologized and hugged me. He said, ‘I am so sorry; I will do better.’”
Isom plans to go back to New Orleans “to rest and recuperate for awhile.” Following that, she hopes to work part time in archival and museum management.
In her spare time, she enjoys reading books by Helen Steiner Rice, sewing and restoring antiques.
For those who do not believe that college may be right for them, Isom suggests they just give it a try.
“They should give it their all,” said the grandmother of 12. “Once they do that, they will know ‘This is what I need to be doing.’ Education is the key for African-American children. They need to keep going as far as they can. If they are not educated, then they are not going to make it.”