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Supermoms, to a big degree

Getting through PHCC wasn't easy, but each is eager to learn more.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
Published December 9, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY - Two mothers will don caps and gowns and walk across the stage with the other graduates at Pasco-Hernando Community College's winter commencement Thursday.

Their heads will be held up just a little more proudly than the rest - and deservedly so.

They say a woman's work is never done.

But until you meet Shirley Merson and Dawn Matos, you have no idea.

* * *

Shirley Merson has three daughters. For 14 months, she took care of them by herself,carried a full six-class load at PHCC, and worked two part-time jobs.

"There were times I felt like I wanted to give up," she said, "like it was too much."

Encouragement was just a phone call away, when her husband, Staff Sgt. Harold Merson, would call from Kuwait.

He spent most of their two-year marriage overseas. That ended in November. But while he was away, he called her every day.

Twice.

"I would just encourage her to keep going," said the 47-year-old veteran.

"She said she was getting burned out. I would say there's only a couple of weeks left."

* * *

Now she has only one day left, Monday, when she'll take a final exam. Then Merson, 38, will graduate from PHCC with an associate's degree in paralegal studies.

She started her two-year degree in 1993, but wrapping up an eight-year stint in the Army last year and raising three daughters can take some time.

Soon the family will move to Oklahoma, where she grew up. She'll reunite with her family and start her new job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs she is Kiowa/Choctaw and pursue a four-year degree there.

Family is what drove Shirley Merson to go back to school. After a divorce and her remarriage, the mother felt she had to do something for her daughters - Brittany Stoffels, 15, Sarah Stoffels, 7, and Terri Stoffels, 6 - and for herself.

"I want them to see that you ought to never give up on yourself," she said. "If you see something you want, go for it. Don't let anybody tell you any differently.

"They're ecstatic knowing that I'm going to be graduating. The two younger ones are always telling me how proud they are of me.

"It just makes me want to cry whenever they say that."

* * *

Like Merson, Dawn Matos has her own reasons for persevering through single motherhood, classes and work.

Their names are Steven, Joseph, Alyssa and Michael - who are 16, 14, 12 and 6.

Before she came to PHCC she was a mother going through a divorce who needed public assistance to get by.

Now the 36-year-old is an honor society member who will graduate with an associate's degree in nursing. She said she recently landed a nursing job at Community Hospital of New Port Richey.

"Being on Medicaid and food stamps for so many years, you want a better life and you want to set a better example for your children," she said.

"It's a big motivator."

* * *

What about encouragement?

Matos settled for a shove in the back.

"It was scary because I talked about it for a long time," she said, "and my mother told me stop talking about it and do it.

"It's scary because you don't know where you're going to get the money from. You don't know how you'll support yourself. But if you go to PHCC, the help is here. You just have to go out and get it."

Matos landed a work-study job in the financial aid department.

Her job was to help those who needed the same type of help she needed. Matos got a Federal Pell Grant, a PHCC Foundation scholarship, a Career Central scholarship and a PHCC need grant.

It's how she got through school and paid for her gas and even new nursing uniforms.

* * *

She's just getting started. Her new employer pays tuition, and her sights are set on a four-year degree at St. Petersburg College.

"Once you get into the flow of it you realize how important education is," Matos said. "The opportunities are endless at this point. I don't want to stop."

Not until the single mother who once needed public assistance has joined the ranks of management.

Apparently, managing four kids is not enough.

"I can manage quite a few people," she said.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.