May 14, 2015

Online degree program helps student reach her goal

by Christi Mathis

Charlaina JohnsonCARBONDALE, Ill.  – As a mother of three young children who was working full-time, Charlaina Johnson knew completing college would be a challenge. 

Little did she know when she began her quest how hard but also how gratifying it would be when she reached her goal. She said she is thrilled to be graduating on Saturday, May 16, with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 

Johnson, a native of Sallisaw, Okla., now living in Karnak, was pursuing a double degree at Shawnee Community College during the spring 2012 semester. She was earning her Associate of Science and Associate of Arts degrees and anxiously began planning to continue her education at SIU. 

Meanwhile, she was busy with children Libbie Lumbley, now 10, Jimmy Barnett, now seven, and Charlene Barnett, now five. On top of that, Charlaina worked full-time as a security guard at Harrah’s Metropolis. 

Then tragedy struck in March 2012. Charlaina’s fiancée, Keith Barnett, was killed in a traffic accident. She was left to raise her three children alone. 

“I was going to just give up on my dream of going to SIU because I didn’t think I could do it by myself,” she said. 

However, she decided to attend a transfer orientation session that SIU hosted and after learning of the many resources available to non-traditional students, Johnson decided to go for it. She started classes on the Carbondale campus that fall. She would work from 9 at night until 5:30 the next morning, take an hour-long nap and then get her kids ready for school or daycare. Her mother, Johnnie Lumbley, helped out. 

Johnson would then drive more than an hour to SIU for classes. Afterward, she made the long drive home, helped her kids with homework, did her own homework and headed off to work again, repeating the sequence day after day. 

When Johnson committed to her education and to creating the future she wanted for herself and her family, she didn’t just do what it took to pass her courses. She made time to have fun with her children and get involved on campus. 

“Despite balancing multiple outside responsibilities, she got involved on campus as much as she could,” Deborah Barnett, coordinator of Non-Traditional Student Services, recalls. Barnett said that after learning Johnson’s story, she was even more impressed with Johnson’s “strength and determination.” 

So it went for two semesters. Despite the great support and help she received through Non-Traditional Student Services, the College of Business, SIU, and the community, Johnson was exhausted and dealing with a lot of stress. Again, the thought of taking time off from school entered her mind. 

Instead, she talked with Darla Karnes, online accounting program manager and senior lecturer. Karnes mentored Johnson but had no clue what Johnson was dealing with on a daily basis, because Johnson never complained about her circumstances. Along with advisers in the College of Business, Karnes suggested that Johnson consider the college’s new online accounting degree completion program. 

“She took me under her wing. She highly encouraged me not to give up,” Johnson said. “She stayed in touch with me, mentored me and checked on me. The advisement staff helped me set up a plan and followed up with me, making sure I was doing okay and not overloaded, also.” 

Johnson enrolled in the online program the fall of 2013, one of the first students in the online accounting program, and never missed a beat, continuing toward her degree while still working and caring for her children. She earned a promotion at work and in June 2014, got remarried, to Jacob Johnson. She has continued to be active on campus too, as time allows, participating in College of Business activities including professional meetings and visits to accounting firms. 

She has also stayed involved with Non-Traditional Student Services. She said the office has been very important to her. She and her children enjoy the family carnival and other activities the group sponsors and she has also benefitted by learning about resources, including childcare assistance. In addition to finding out about helpful SIU, community and state resources, the office and SIU have connected her with invaluable moral support and activities, Johnson said. 

“I’ve still been able to be connected even though I’m in the online program,” she said.  She’s also quick to note that the online program isn’t a cakewalk. She said she saves time not driving to class every day but has found the online program to be as challenging and professional as classes on campus. 

“I’ve definitely honed my time management skills in the past three years,” she said with a chuckle. 

She has succeeded academically as well. Johnson’s current GPA is 3.70. 

“Charlaina has multiple responsibilities outside of class, including three young children. She has overcome challenges and adversity, but used them all to give her the fuel needed to earn her degree. She came to SIU with a clear goal and has not only persevered, but pushed for academic excellence. She is truly an inspiration,” Barnett said. 

Johnson is both proud of her accomplishment and thankful for the support she has received. 

“This degree lets me show my kids that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want to do. Just find people who support and encourage you in reaching your goals,” she said. 

Johnson plans to take the state CPA test and seek employment in the accounting field.  

Barnett and Karnes are quite confident, based on all they know and have seen from Johnson, that she will succeed. 

“Charlaina Johnson is a remarkable lady and has been quite an inspiration to me,” Karnes said. “She has been a great resource for me as well. She has been quick to contact me if she noticed an issue in an online class. When we initially launched the program, I was uncertain how it would actually work, but two years later, I believe Charlaina is the best example of the value and importance of an online program. It has provided her with the opportunity to earn a quality degree and at the same time, provided extra time to spend with her family. 

“I have no doubt Charlaina will accomplish anything she sets out to do,” Karnes added. “She is a remarkable lady with an incredible work ethic and a kind heart. When I feel overwhelmed and am having a bad day, I think about Charlaina and realize my obstacles are nothing compared to what she endured and overcame to earn her accounting degree. I am so proud of her.”