Adult degree student on track to graduate with hel...

Adult degree student on track to graduate with help from ATHENA scholarship

Before she enrolled in classes again in 2017, Denise Harris had not stepped into a classroom since 2002.

A lot has changed in the 17 years since those first classes, when Harris was studying to become a dental hygienist. In April, because of her hard work in the classroom, she received one of two 2019 ATHENA scholarships and is on track to graduate from MTSU with a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies, a fully customizable degree perfectly suited for adult students.

Each year, the Rutherford ATHENA Award Program presents a scholarship to women who are pursuing degrees later in life. Rutherford Cable, a leadership organization for women’s professional advancement in Rutherford County, administers the ATHENA Award Program locally. The ATHENA International global program is named for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

According to the organization, scholarship nominees “exemplify leadership, superior performance, commitment to the community and unselfish assistance to women in their attainment of professional goals and leadership skills.”

ATHENA scholarship recipient Denise Harris, center, an MTSU integrated studies major, is pictured with Suzanne Jen, left, and Retta Gardner at the annual ATHENA Leadership Awards banquet held in April. Harris received a $1,000 nontraditional scholarship. (Submitted photo)

ATHENA scholarship recipient Denise Harris, center, an MTSU integrated studies major, is pictured with Suzanne Jen, left, and Retta Gardner at the annual ATHENA Leadership Awards banquet held in April at Embassy Suites Murfreesboro. Harris received a $1,000 nontraditional scholarship to pursue her degree. (Submitted photo)

Harris no doubt represents all those attributes.

She works two jobs, has three children, and is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. While some might say she makes it look easy now, it hasn’t always been that way.

With some college classes already under her belt, then-23-year-old Harris went to a trade school to become a registered dental assistant. She had two kids and realized she wasn’t earning enough to enroll both in daycare, so she went back to school to become a dental hygienist.

Baby No. 3 came along and presented a whole new set of challenges for Harris. Three young children, one of whom was diagnosed with autism at an early age, and their needs convinced her to find another job and keep going.

Fast forward to 2017, where Harris’ boss, this time at MTSU, was pushing her to get her degree. After mulling it over and realizing many of the credits from the classes she had already taken could be transferred, she enrolled in the Integrated Studies Program in the University College to earn her bachelor’s degree.

She really hit her stride in fall 2018. She was taking an art history class and enjoyed it, then  received some very positive feedback from a communications professor. Harris said balancing her life as an adult, a mother and a student has been a bit easier than she expected.

“I was worried about taking classes during work hours, but my boss is very flexible, so that helps a lot,” Harris said. “I have tried to take a few online courses, which is better for working around my schedule, but you can’t always do that.”

Remember, she’s a member of an honor society, so getting good grades is a priority.

“This leaves less personal time, but I’m not one to just sit around, so I’m OK with it.”

A Bachelor of Science in Integrated Studies degree has multiple areas of emphasis, and Harris went with one close to her heart. Her focus is in healthcare management.

“I want to bring awareness to autism because my son, who is now 21, has autism. It has been amazing to see all of the obstacles he has overcome,” she said. “I want him to be independent, but he still needs help every now and then. So I think there should be communities for special-needs adults to live on their own that allows for supervision 24/7 on-site.”

Harris’ son, who’s been studying graphic design, is set to graduate soon from the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Murfreesboro. He hopes to one day work for NASCAR in North Carolina.

Athena International Rutherford Co logoHarris’ daughter has also inspired her throughout her own journey. Diagnosed with obsessive- compulsive disorder at 12 years old and with attention deficit disorder while in college, Harris said the young woman has sometimes struggled but is set to graduate from MTSU in August.

Her children are incredibly proud of their mom and her accomplishments. At the ATHENA Leadership Awards banquet, held at Embassy Suites Murfreesboro, Harris said her daughter told her it was “neat” to be attending an event for her after Harris had attended so many of her children’s events while they were growing up.

“The Athena Award and banquet was amazing! You always hope to be a good role model for your kids,” Harris said. “She got to see really strong women come together and be acknowledged for their hard work and dedication to the Murfreesboro community. Growing up, I never knew people did things like this, so I’m glad she got to see where she can help others.”

Harris said she tells everyone she meets about going back to school at MTSU.

“I tell them about all of the things I learn and how (the) Integrated Studies (Program) allows me to take so many different courses, since I have so many different interests. Even if I never use my degree at my age, it’s still a goal and a huge accomplishment that not everyone can say they have completed.”

Those interested in going to college for the first time or finishing a degree can talk to an adviser by calling 615-494-7714 or by clicking here for details on the university’s Adult Degree Completion Program.

— Hunter Patterson, University College (