Rosanna and Omer Garland have been exemplary, although unlikely, students. Neither even considered college after graduating from high school. Their families didn’t think it was necessary, and even if they thought differently, there was no money. Rosanna, who at one time weighed over 460 pounds, was too painfully shy to ferret out resources. At age 27 — nearly a decade after graduating from high school — she finally found help at Hazard Community and Technical College. Rosanna was a model student. In two years Rosanna won a presidential scholarship from her community college to attend Eastern Kentucky University.
Omer, likewise, came from a family that had no experience with or expectations for higher education. He worked in a factory until, at mid-life, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a math teacher. Also a community college student, Omer was named a Distinguished Scholar for his 4.0 grade point average. He worked two jobs, attended school full time and coached pee wee basketball.
If these people lived in another time, or another place, they would be comfortably middle class. But they are in Knott County, Kentucky. Rosanna’s college ambitions were put on hold when her mother died and left her with an eight-year-old brother to raise. After that, a drug arrest left her brother’s four children in jeopardy of being separated and placed in foster care.
“I didn’t have the heart to see them split up,” Rosanna said.
Rosanna tried to go to college, but with five children — her now fifteen-year-old brother, a six-year-old, a four-year-old set of twins and an infant — it proved impossible. With minimal support from social services and impossible scheduling, she dropped out.
Omer sacrificed his manufacturing job at Bluegrass Plating so that Rosanna’s young brother would not have to be uprooted from his school. He could not find comparable employment in Hazard, however, and he took the job he could find, at McDonald’s restaurant in Combs. McDonald’s was willing to allow him a flexible schedule so he could continue to work while he attended community college. So after two years Omer completed his degree — also as an honor student — and he is now working toward his bachelor’s degree from Morehead State University. This is possible only because some classes are offered 30 miles away in Breathitt County and he was awarded a presidential scholarship for his academic achievement. If he had to drive to Morehead — 100 miles away — his education would end as well.
“Yes, I know with the both of us presidential scholarship recipients, one may think our lives would be better off,” Rosanna said. “But it’s just not that easy here in the mountains. There are too few opportunities to use the knowledge one obtains. But on the other hand, I love living here because I am a country girl at heart and I like the small communities where people actually know each other and we aren’t just another face in the crowd.”
Right now Rosanna’s educational plans are on hold while she raises her new family. But one day she hopes to become a social worker so she will be able to help people through crises such as the one she lived through. Omer wants to be a math teacher. And they both want to raise five children who go to college — preferably right after they finish high school.
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