Crystal Casey, left, is pictured with Dr. Sara Wheeler, a math instructor at Gadsden State’s McClellan Center, during the April 2018 ceremony for the Everyday Hero Awards. Casey is graduating Dec. 18 with her second associate degree thanks in large part to Wheeler, who encouraged Casey to go from a failing student to a math tutor to a college graduate.
Anniston Resident Looks Forward to Graduation; Recalls Tough Path to Educational Success
Graduating from Gadsden State Community College is a moment to remember. For many graduates, it’s the beginning of a wonderful career. For others, it’s one phase on their educational journey. Every graduate has a story about how they got there: their trials, their challenges, their triumphs. Crystal Casey, 42, is one of over 200 graduates who will participate in Gadsden State’s fall commencement ceremony at 6 p.m. Dec. 18 at Wallace Hall Fine Arts Center on the Wallace Drive Campus.
“I just picked up my cap and gown, and I am so excited about graduation,” said Casey, who lives in Anniston. “I can’t believe I’ve finally made it.”
It has been a long road for Casey since her childhood in Texas. Her parents divorced when she was 7 years old and her mother remarried a man who did not make raising children a priority.
“He was a transient person,” she said. “We’d move up to 16 times a year. We would have three to four months of stability at the most but then we’d move again because he wouldn’t work. We sometimes didn’t have running water or electricity. We slept on friends’ couches and in basements.”
He was also very abusive, both mentally and physically.
“He was horrible to me,” she said. “I was never allowed to complete school. We just moved too much.”
Casey dropped out of school in the ninth grade and moved in with a friend’s family, who she paid $35 a week for living expenses.
“I’d get up at 5 a.m. every day to go make hushpuppies for a fast food restaurant to pay the rent,” she said. “I worked job-after-job just trying to self-support.”
Before long, her education was not a priority, and she embarked on a life of dead-end jobs. She also got married very young but was divorced within a year.
“I had no life skills so it was hard for me to make good decisions,” she said. “I really wavered from the ages of 17 to 23. I knew I needed an education to get my life on track, but I didn’t even know where to start.”
Crystal Casey is pictured with her husband, Brian, and 9-year-old son, Fisher, at the beach in Biloxi, Miss., one of Fisher’s favorite places. Casey will graduate on Dec. 18 with her second associate degree after a long struggle to achieve her goal of becoming a paralegal.
In 2000, Casey tagged along with a friend who moved to Baton Rouge, La. There, she got a job at a boot store. A young police officer named Brian Casey came in to buy required boots. They hit it off, and they were married three months later.
“Something just clicked with us,” she said. “We’ve been married for almost 19 years now.”
For two years, they lived in Baton Rouge before moving to Madison County, where Brian worked as a game warden at Monte Sano State Park. Cheaha State Park brought the Caseys to Calhoun County, where he now works as an internal affairs investigator for the State of Alabama.
Nine years after the Casey’s married, their son Fisher was born prematurely.
“He was born at eight months old and only weighed three pounds,” she said. “He has Down Syndrome and was born with holes in his heart.”
At 10 months old, Fisher had open heart surgery to repair two holes. He has two holes remaining but Casey said doctors don’t expect surgery to be required. He still has lung issues that require him to sleep on a CPAP machine, and he has partial deafness. Still, Fisher is a happy, thriving third-grader at White Plains Elementary School.
“He is in mostly mainstream classes,” Casey said. “We have worked very hard to get him there. He’s so smart. He reads on a first-grade level which is really good for him.”
Two years after Fisher’s birth, Brian encouraged his wife to work towards getting her GED.
“Brian and his family members are all college-educated, which I found intimidating,” she said. “I was embarrassed that I didn’t even have a high school diploma.”
Casey went to the Cheaha Career Center on Gadsden State’s Ayers Campus and started studying for her GED.
“It only took me about six weeks,” she said. “I did pretty well on it considering I didn’t even finish the ninth grade.”
Once she earned her GED, Casey decided to continue her education and enrolled in general studies courses. She had to take remedial math – twice.
“I was a first-time student and I took math online,” she said. “Big mistake. I didn’t understand how online courses worked, and I didn’t understand the material.”
She also didn’t understand that she could drop a class and, instead, failed it for not completing assignments. The second time she took it, she had a C going into the final exam, which she failed. In turn, she failed the class and was getting very discouraged. Then, she met Dr. Sara Wheeler, a math instructor at Gadsden State’s McClellan Center.
“I finally caught onto the material because she is a wonderful instructor,” Casey said. “Her mentorship and support has really helped me succeed.”
The student who failed math twice eventually was hired as a tutor for ADA students, veterans and students struggling in math. For the past two semesters, she worked a peer tutor in the Cardinal Tutoring Center as well.
In December 2016, she earned an associate degree in general studies, and she won the Outstanding Math Student Award. This year, she was honored with the Everyday Hero Award given by the Gadsden State Cardinal Foundation to those who make a difference in the lives of others or have bravely endured hardships or struggles.
“I have come a long way from being a high school dropout,” she said.
On Dec. 18, she will receive her second associate degree, this time in Paralegal Studies. She is already working as a paralegal at Padula Law Firm. And, she is determined to be a published author with her three-part children’s book series called “Huggie Dougie.” She is currently in talks with a publisher.
“The books are based on Fisher’s adaptation to life,” she said. “As he goes through life, I find stories.”
Reflecting on her educational journey, she is thrilled with the outcome. And, she has a word of advice for adult learners like her.
“Utilize all of the resources Gadsden State has to offer from the start,” she said. “Starting out, a lot of students don’t know what’s going on. If you don’t know, ask someone. There are a lot of people at Gadsden State wanting to help you because they want you to succeed. They will give you an arsenal of resources. Use them.”
At the upcoming commencement ceremony, two students will also tell their stories of triumph and perseverance. Temecha Boseman and Michael Bailey will be the commencement’s featured speakers.
Boseman, a resident of Anniston, earned a certificate in Practical Nursing several years ago from Gadsden State’s Ayers Campus but she always dreamed of becoming a registered nurse. She will receive her her Associate of Applied Science degree in Nursing at the commencement ceremony. Boseman has maintained a B-average though she juggled full-time employment, school, work and family responsibilities. She plans on continuing her education to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Bailey is from Attalla and will graduate with an Associate of Applied Science in Electrical Technology. He has managed to overcome physical challenges and maintain full-time employment while earning a 3.5 GPA. He is a member of the National Technical Honor Society and Reed Memorial Baptist Church. He hopes to open his own business utilizing knowledge and skills learned at Gadsden State.
Graduates will be presented by Pam Johnson, dean of Institutional Effectiveness, Grants and Special Projects, and Dr. Leslie Worthington, dean of Academic Programs and Services. Dr. Martha Lavender, president of Gadsden State, will award the degrees. The Gadsden State A Capella Choir and Rhonda Brown Robinson will perform. Jack Mayfield Jr., industrial automation instructor, will serve as the Commencement Grand Marshal.