The daughter of a West Virginia coal miner who grew up in a poor household with parents who battled drug addictions, Janie Durham outlined her life story on Tuesday.
“We all have stories, but if sharing my own modest narrative resonates with a single person here today,” she said, “then it’s definitely a story worth telling.”
From a stage at the Infinite Energy Center, Durham was the graduate speaker at the Georgia Gwinnett College summer graduation after finishing a degree in psychology with a 3.56 grade-point-average. She plans to enroll this fall to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Georgia.
Durham was one of 217 graduates who were honored at the event where Duluth-based Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer, who is running for lieutenant governor, gave the commencement address. In the theme of the day that was noted by GGC President Stas Preczewski, Durham and Shafer, the politician said that many of the graduates completed their coursework while carrying “significant family responsibilities” such as caring or providing for a relative, and working 20 hours a week.
“Your days of being nurtured were over,” Shafer said. “… You have been paying taxes and discharging adult responsibilities for years. … What made you stronger here at Georgia Gwinnett College was not the nurture, but the struggle. The challenge of completing your academic studies while leading a real adult life.”
From an early age, Durham said she struggled in school, and at one point moved seven times in as many years. She said it was difficult to do well in school when you’re hungry. And it’s difficult to study when all the light you have is from the sun because parents couldn’t pay a power bill. Things turned around by the end of high school for the 1999 graduate of Winder-Barrow High School before she landed a job in retail management.
Preczewski said Durham was like many of the graduates who faced challenges along their way to a diploma.
“She has achieved much more than what she thought was possible,” he said.
Durham herself said the road that brought all of the graduates there was challenging, but amazing.
“I cannot believe I’m here where no one ever thought I would be, including myself,” she said. “This college gave me a chance.”
Speaking to her mother who Durham said was watching the ceremony online, she said, “don’t worry about us, because we’ve made it.” She also acknowledged her late father.
With encouragement from her husband, a 2016 GGC graduate, and her brother, Durham chose to enroll in GGC and finish her degree.
“The two of them always believed in me,” she said. “Everyone else thought I was crazy to quit a stable job to get a degree. But I was tired of listening to what other people thought I couldn’t do.”
Durham and Shafer each noted how the event was the start of something, and that the graduates were there because they persevered, and stressed the importance of passing on that thought to the next generation.
Shafer, a veteran of Georgia politics, encouraged the graduates to treat everyone they meet like a friend, or a future friend, because in politics, for example, he said your enemy one day could be your friend the next.
The value of the institution, Shafer said, is in the improvement it made to each graduate. The liberal arts education teaches students how to think, how to learn and how to collaborate with others.