As a competency-based, student-focused, online, nonprofit university, we do things a bit differently at WGU. From the bottom up, we're designed with students in mind—particularly, the busy, working, adult student who wants to earn a bachelor's or master's degree but for whom a traditional university education simply won't do.
At 8-years-old, Erin Bishop knew if she chose to keep her baby-sitting money for herself instead of buying groceries, her family wouldn't eat. She knew if she didn't help her little brother with homework, it would go undone. She knew if she chose to play with her friends instead of cooking dinner, her family wouldn't have dinner that night.
In an interview with FamilyShare.com, Bishop said, "I remember going and borrowing water from our neighbor. Bills were paid according to their importance, if they were paid at all. We lived in poverty."
Bishop and her siblings
And one day, her senior year, Bishop stopped showing up at school.
Rudy Jones, who taught Bishop's honors biology class, noticed her absence and knew he needed to find her. He made several attempts to contact her but was unsuccessful.
Escaping her life
Bishop saw her life through the lens of growing up with a mother who didn't have anything more than a GED, was a drug addict, was in and out of relationships and was mentally and physically abusive to her kids: "My childhood was taken away from me by my mom," Bishop said.
All Bishop wanted was to be released from that world, to live a different life. But in trying to escape, Bishop was following right along in her mother's footsteps. At 17, Bishop moved out of her mom's house, which meant she needed to work extra hours to live more sustainably. In other words, she had to drop out of school.
How her teacher saved her
"I was kind of living day by day, and so I didn't think of the long-term consequences," Bishop said. "Thinking back to when I was a teenager, I didn't put the parallels together of you're doing exactly what your mom did. (I was) repeating that cycle."
Finally, Bishop learned that Jones was trying to contact her. She returned to her high school to speak with him.
Jones helped Bishop see her life in a different light. Jones told Bishop she needed to go to college, but the idea was unfathomable to her. He told her, "You can do hard things. ... Look at everything that you have already overcome."
That's how Bishop realized that not only did her past not define her future, but that maybe her past gave her the ability to change her future. In other words, because she had already done challenging things, she had the strength to climb bigger mountains.
She had already been out of school a full term, but Jones met with the school counselors to find a way to get Bishop back on track and even graduate early.
Bishop said, "It took (Jones) laying it out for me to see that the cycle was there and that I needed to change that and that I was capable of changing that."
Struggles along the way
This didn't mean the road was easy. Bishop was now a single mother balancing work, parenting and school.
She found a college that was accommodating of her schedule, but she was drowning in costs. "The $30,000 price tag on an associate's degree was just kind of overwhelming. So I stopped for a while."
It was during this time she had to move in with her former stepfather and his wife, which was really hard for Bishop, who wasn't accustomed to accepting handouts. But doing double the amount of student teaching (teaching in both a general-education classroom as well as special education) and still working part time, she knew she needed to do it for her family.
But Bishop's hard work and sacrifice paid off. Even before she graduated, she was offered a full-time position as a teacher working in inner-city Ogden, Utah.
Of her job, Bishop said, "I was thrilled because I knew that the dynamic I was working with were the students I could relate with because they were going to have so much of the same background. I can't tell you how many relationships I built with those kids because they knew I understood them; they knew that I get it and I loved them."
In other words, because of her past, Bishop is able to reach students like her: people with potential who are blinded by their circumstances. But just like Jones, Bishop is able to teach them to break the cycle and become more than they thought they could be.
"(Jones) literally saved me." And with that, she is able to save others.