LaShonda Carter ’15 always had the ability to thrive in academia, but it took an act of motherly love – her desire to be an inspiration for her son – to discover that aptitude.

Today, with assistance from scholarships, mentors and caring faculty at UCI, she’s embarking on a doctorate in the humanities and helping other students who need just a little encouragement to succeed in college.

In the 1990s, Carter attended a Los Angeles high school with predominantly African American and Hispanic students. She performed well, earning a 3.7 GPA. But she wasn’t a top student, and the message she received from counselors and teachers was that only the very best could survive in college and beyond.

“I graduated with the Silver Seal of Honor,” she says. “And I didn’t think that was good enough. My high school didn’t support going to college, so I didn’t even think about it.”

“At UCI, faculty spoke to me not as a student who’s different but as a student who should be here.”

Instead, Carter went straight into the workforce from high school. She spent much of her early adulthood as a hairstylist and mom to son Jordan Haywood. But when she noticed her son’s waning interest in his studies, she decided it was time to ignore past doubts and become an inspiration for the future. She enrolled at Cerritos College to earn an associate’s degree in English.

Carter aced her classes and, in the process, demonstrated to Jordan the value of pursuing the highest levels of academic success. In contrast to her high school experience 14 years earlier, faculty and mentors at Cerritos College encouraged her to transfer to UCI.

As an Anteater, she discovered a world that not only valued her voice but demanded it. Mentors across the School of Humanities – in both English and African American studies – challenged Carter to think broadly about the world and to consider how she wanted to engage and shape it. She also found valuable help and guidance through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which pairs students from all academic disciplines with faculty mentors to facilitate research and creative activities.

“At UCI, faculty spoke to me not as a student who’s different but as a student who should be here,” she says. “It makes all the difference in the world when you’re part of a community that believes you deserve to be there.”

Assistance from a variety of sources allowed Carter to dive deeply into her newly discovered scholarly passions. The UCI Town & Gown Scholarship and the School of Humanities’ Hester A. Laddey Memorial Award, Hannah J. Caldwell Student Award and Lindon Barrett Memorial Award were invaluable. As a participant in the Center for Educational Partnerships’ SAGE Scholars program, she also received counseling on building her professional skills and coaching through her postgraduate interviews.

“Private support allowed me more freedom to focus and flourish in my studies,” Carter says.

She and her son moved onto campus, and the student who had gotten so little mentorship in high school spent her senior year mentoring recent transfer students and serving as a peer tutor in writing, providing the encouragement she never had. (In June, she earned bachelor’s degrees in English and African American studies.)

At home, Jordan might not love doing his homework every night, but he’s started talking about his own college degree not as an “if” but as a “when.”

This fall, Carter begins her doctoral program in culture & theory at UCI, and she’s doing it for someone new.

“The undergraduate degree? That was for Jordan,” says Carter, who hopes to teach at a university someday. “This one’s for me.”

Originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of UCI Magazine