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New SGA president overcomes obstacles to become Gadsden State student

Gadsden, Ala. – Maria Petersen is resilient. Many obstacles stood in the way of her furthering her education – a learning disability, ailing parents, fear. There were times she doubted herself. Was she smart enough? Was higher education a goal unattainable to her?

“I had every excuse in the world not to go to college,” she said. “It just took me awhile to figure out that college was for me.”

The doubt is now gone and her resiliency and drive are evident. The 32-year-old successful student at Gadsden State Community College was recently elected president of the Student Government Association.

“When I came to Gadsden State, I was scared,” she said. “As a non-traditional student, I was intimidated by the classes. I thought the work was going to be too hard, but I worked at it. Now, look at me. I make great grades and I’m in a leadership role.”

It has been a long road for Petersen. After graduating from Bolivar Central High School in west Tennessee, she aspired to attend a community college.

“I made good grades in high school but learning with dyslexia is not easy,” she said. “I really had to push myself.”

Despite having above-average grades, Petersen passed on going to college. Instead, she took on the role as primary caregiver for her little brother.

“My father took care of me by himself since I was 12 years old,” she said. “Because he had to work to support us, I had to be responsible for taking care of my brother. It was my choice to focus on family instead of college.”

Once her brother went to high school, Petersen moved to Virginia to rekindle her relationship with her mother. Four years later, she moved to Auburn Hills, Mich., for a new experience – working as an assistant at a Christian school. Her next stop was in Indiana, where she spent four years as a nanny.

In 2016, Petersen found her way to Gadsden, where her mother had moved several years before. She was ill and needed care.

“School was not in the picture for me at all,” she said. “I just wanted to take care of my mother and work as a nanny. I was content with being a nanny for the rest of my life.”

That changed in 2018 when she celebrated her 30th birthday.

“I had my ‘aha moment,’” she said. “I wanted to get an education so I could have a career. I was encouraged to just try it and see if I could do it.”

Petersen was about to start her first semester at Gadsden State when she received the devastating news that her father had slipped into a coma.

“I almost didn’t go to school because I felt like I needed to be in Tennessee with him,” she said.

It was the words he said to her the night before he went into a coma that kept her going.

“He told me how proud he was of me and that he wanted me to fulfill my dreams,” she said. “He said, ‘the sky’s the limit. You need to go after your dreams.’ So, I did.”

Petersen enrolled at Gadsden State and immediately received encouragement from faculty and staff.

“An instructor told me about Student Support Services because I’m a first-generation college student,” she said. “It was the right decision for me to turn to SSS for help.”

SSS focuses on low-income students, first-generation students and students with disabilities. It is designed to increase the retention and graduation rates of eligible students, to facilitate their transfer to four-year institutions and to foster an institutional climate supportive of their success.

“I got really involved in SSS, and it has benefited me so much,” She said. “The staff has really pushed me to continue my education because of my grades and my drive.”

Having a medical diagnosis of dyslexia added to her challenges by making learning more difficult. But, due to her sheer determination and a few accommodations provided by the Gadsden State Office of Disability Services and Resources, she has proven to be a star student.

“I have a lot of people supporting me and helping me along the way,” she said.

Petersen needed all the support she could get. Juggling college courses and her responsibility to her father were difficult.

“I would leave after class on Thursday to go to Tennessee to be with my dad,” she said. “Then, I would come home to Gadsden on Sunday night or early Monday morning and go straight to my 8 a.m. class. I felt like I had a huge group of cheerleaders encouraging me to keep going. I am thankful for the nurses and the staff at the hospital and the employees at Gadsden State. They helped me get to where I am today. They were always encouraging me and would help me with my school work.”

Her father was in a coma for four months and is now recovering. Now, Petersen shares her challenges with others as motivation.

“Sometimes we have no control over our circumstances,” she said. “Things are going to happen, but you can’t beat yourself up over it. Pick yourself up and keep pushing toward the prize.”

Petersen is more focused on her courses and her leadership roles in student organizations. She shadowed past SGA president, Kerry Griffith, in preparation for her to lead the organization.

“He took me under his wing and taught me how to be a good president,” she said. “He showed me what to do and he introduced me to a lot of people.”

Besides being the newly-elected SGA president, she is also vice president of the TRiO for Success Club, vice president of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and a member of the Honors Class. She is a core member for the non-profit organization Sleep in Heavenly Peace and a member of Church on the Rock in Gadsden.

“I’m involved because I want to make a difference; to improve student life on campus,” she said. “We need to have a student life that attracts people to enroll at Gadsden State.”

She wants to increase the amount of information available on the Gadsden State clubs and organizations. She wants to ensure that the clubs are inclusive and inviting to all students.

“We need to entice people to not only come to Gadsden State to get an education but to also be involved,” she said. “Students can make a big impact if they just get involved.”

All Gadsden State students are considered members of the SGA and are invited to attend the meetings on the first Monday of each month. Times and locations will post on Gadsden State social media platforms.

“It’s never too late to be involved in the SGA,” she said. “All students are welcome.”

Petersen will graduate with an associate degree in general studies in December. She will remain at Gadsden State until the summer to take additional general academic courses that she can apply to her bachelor’s degree. She plans to transfer to a four-year university to study public relations in fall 2021.

“I have come a long way from being a scared college student in 2018,” she said. “I hope to be an inspiration to others who may be struggling. It may seem like you’re not going to see the light at the end of the tunnel but if you keep pushing toward the mark, you will make it out and it will be so worth it. There are a lot of resources available that will help you succeed. You are not alone.”

For more information about Student Support Services and student organizations, visit www.gadsdenstate.edu.