Each semester, East Georgia State College has hundreds of students who make their way down the halls of the Swainsboro, Statesboro or Augusta campus. Each student has a different story and different reason why they are pursuing a degree, but very few students have their motivation right beside them or even, sometimes, in the same class. Audra Lee, an EGSC - Statesboro student, found her motivation even closer to her.
If you call Pineland Telephone Cooperative to pay your bill or ask a question, you may hear Audra’s voice when you call. She will answer your question or help you handle your payment and will always leave you with a kind word or some type of motivation.
“Sometimes when people call, we will go from paying their bill to me just motivating them or telling them how God can bless them,” said Audra.
What many people can’t see or hear over the phone is her determination to use her own life to help people, not only over the phone while they pay their bill, but to help children or young adults who need her help the most.
“I kind of got stuck in customer service but I always knew I wanted to help juveniles,” she said.
In 1993 Audra got an Information and Office Technology certificate from Southeastern Technical College in Vidalia. A few years later, she found herself working at the Vidalia Police Department.
“By working at the police department, I thought about being a juvenile probation officer because I wanted to help children get on the right path before they made too many mistakes,” she said.
Since that sparked her interest, she obtained a Criminal Justice Technology diploma in 2004 from Southeastern Technical College while working at Alltel. Audra knew, as a single mom, she needed to make wise career choices and have a career with regular working hours with weekends off. By the grace of God, an opportunity opened for her as a receptionist at Pineland Telephone in January of 2007. Taking a different pathway in customer service, she now celebrates 13 years as a Customer Experience Associate (CEA). However, being determined to continue her education in criminal justice, she received her associate degree from Ogeechee Technical College in 2012.
During the past few years she decided to take on another challenge. She decided to go back to college - this time for a different reason than before.
“You know, before, when I went to school, it was for my children, to make their life better,” she said. “But this time, it was really for me. This is something I wanted to do. I knew that my daughter was going to graduate soon. I knew I needed to do something different to find myself again, because when you have kids, you kind of lose your identity. You start living more for your kids than yourself. I needed to do something for me.”
Her journey began before her daughter, Audra Imani Williams, graduated from Metter High School in 2016 and began college at Life University in Marietta, Georgia on a partial track scholarship. She later transferred to EGSC.
Imani said it was encouraging to have her mother in school the same time she was because it meant they could push each other.
“She went to night school, worked two jobs, got me and my brother through school, still trying to get me through school, and she just puts herself down. She is just remarkable,” said Imani. “That’s why I push her, because she pushes me.”
During their time at EGSC, they often had the same professor and same class. They said it was very helpful and motivating to be able to help each other.
“I’m more of an in-class person, but some of my classes I had to do online after work,” said Audra. “That was really difficult after being on the computer all day and then having to go home and do classwork on the computer at night, but I’m very thankful for Pineland and my job because they were very helpful and they allowed me to leave a little early to get to classes and such.”
Just a short time ago Audra and Imani learned something that would make their experience at EGSC even better. They would be graduating at the same time - Spring 2020.
“When I found out she would also be finished in May, I was like, ‘this will be cool. I will get to walk with my daughter,’” said Audra.
Because of COVID-19, the commencement ceremony was cancelled and replaced with a virtual ceremony, which they both took part in. They watched the ceremony with Eugene Howard, a local photographer. After the ceremony, Howard took photos of them together to help celebrate their associate degrees from EGSC.
Audra and Imani said they are both planning to come back in the Fall and walk across the stage together during the Fall Commencement Ceremony.
“I would love to walk because that is something I was really looking forward to - to really walk across the stage, because I was excited,” said Audra. “When I got my associates degree in criminal justice, I wasn’t excited. I was more excited this time and I learned I would get to walk with one of my kids.”
Audra said this would have been the second moment in the past few months where she would have gotten to participate with her children at an event. Her son, JuVante’ Butler, is in the Marine Corps and invited her to be his date to the military ball.
Audra said being able to be with both her children at these events and supporting them is right where she needed to be.
“Being a single mom, and even though my son is grown, a child always wants mom there to support them. If mom is there, it brightens their face up,” she said. “As I mature as a mother, I see how important that is. A mother’s job is never over. It’s a challenge but it’s worth it.”
Imani said she is planning to obtain a bachelor’s degree in in exercise science and she is encouraging her mother to continue college as well. She said she has given so much to others, it’s time to give back to herself.
“She is one of the strongest women I have ever known. Honestly, coming home to my mom and hearing her talk to people and mentor people, even if they are just on the phone paying their bill at her work, and then those people recognize me and tell me how much my mom has helped them, I just realize how remarkable she is,” said Imani.
Audra said she would love to one day get a bachelor’s degree in psychology to help juveniles in some capacity.
“I like to encourage other young girls and single mothers to not give up,” she said. “My interest is really in psychology and working with abused kids. I like to be an advocate for those children and even a mentor to them.”
Right now, she plans to continue her job at Pineland because she feels like part of the family.
“God has a plan and if it’s to move forward with a bachelor’s degree, then I know He will make that possible. It just really feels like a family at Pineland and I enjoy my work,” she said.
Audra said East Georgia State College also felt like a family at times. She and Imani said there were so many people along the way who helped them.
“Darlene Dickens, Sherry Helms, Jim Beall, Robert Jones, and Amanda in the bookstore really helped make these associate degrees possible for us. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what I would have done,” Imani said.
For now, Audra and Imani said they will cherish the memories of classes together at East Georgia State College and the people who helped them along the way, and they are looking forward to the moment they get to walk across the EGSC stage together at graduation in the Fall.