Newman grad kept going when others gave up on her

Susan Harris is one of the featured speakers on Friday at Newman University’s Baccalaureate Mass.
Susan Harris is one of the featured speakers on Friday at Newman University’s Baccalaureate Mass. The Wichita Eagle

Seven years ago, Susan Harris was a different person.

Back then, it had been a long time since anyone said anything positive about her.

She was a drug addict by age 13, then was in an abusive relationship for the next 17 years.

By the time she was 40 – seven years ago – she was a mother who was homeless, a high school dropout and going through rehabilitation. There wasn’t much hope. She said she was told she had used drugs so long, the experts didn’t think they could help.

But along the way, she met some sisters of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ.

They believed.

And because of that, Harris feels her life began to change.

On Friday, Harris will be one of the featured speakers at Newman University’s Baccalaureate Mass where she will be receiving her bachelor’s degree in business.

“Through this whole life-changing process, one thing has stayed consistent,” Harris said. “That would be the support of the Sisters of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ and the Catholic Church. My story might sound short and simple, but in order for me to accomplish everything, many Sisters came together.”

At the Saint Anthony Shelter, she was determined to make each day count. As her son went to school, she would use the days to look for a job.

She had no training. Harris signed up to earn her General Educational Development (GED) high school equivalency diploma through the Goodwill Training Center. Saint Anthony Shelter purchased her books and materials.

Then she was referred to a housing program through the United Methodist Open Door.

When Harris interviewed at Open Door, all the Anthony House staff and her counselor showed up at her meeting to vouch for how determined she was and how hard she was working.

“When something like that happens, your self-esteem goes up,” Harris said.

The Open Door gave her housing for two years.

Next, she found a job through the Women’s Initiative Network, or WIN, a partnership that provides survivors of abuse with educational and employment opportunities. Only seven to 10 women are accepted into the program at any given time, Harris said.

“As a student, she was very dedicated from the beginning,” said Jill Fort, associate professor of criminal justice and chair of the social sciences program at Newman University. “She was always on top of things and wanted to know specifically about the final, right when we were starting the class. She was really one of the students that stands out. She doesn’t hesitate to ask a question.”

Harris called WIN every week – sometimes two or three times a week – hoping for a chance to work. It took nearly six months.

“Trust me, as soon as they had an opening, they called me first,” Harris said. “Probably because I was annoying them so much.”

She started with WIN in 2011 and was paid to work for 20 hours a week. She passed the GED test, scoring in the top 15 percent in the nation, and was named Goodwill’s valedictorian and “Scholar of the Year.” At Butler Community College, she received several scholarships and awards, including the college’s highest service and academic award, the Hubbard. It came with a scholarship that helped pay for her Newman education.

“I had her in one of the first classes she took at Newman,” said Vicki Bergkamp, professor of business at Newman University and a member of the Sisters of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. “I knew how fragile she had to be. I tried to keep a connection with her as she started into classes. I knew that had to be a pretty big jump for her to start into traditional college classroom. She was terrified and confused. I was able to check in with her and hopefully give her some kind of direction.

“From my perspective, she clearly wanted to make the changes. She had a real drive. She could listen and see what people were saying to her. I saw her make changes in her life I thought were astounding.”

Along the way, the Sisters mentored her – taught her to use proper grammar, to write, to make quilts, and helped find her a car to get her to classes and gas cards.

“I had people from many different organizations helping me – when they saw I was trying and doing what I needed to do, they started noticing me,” Harris said.

She hasn’t done it yet, but her goal is to start a nonprofit organization to help women with similar backgrounds.

“When you are told you are nothing, that’s how people perceive you,” she said. “The change in me went full force. I am strong and good, dependable. People now want me to share my story.

“The Sisters were so supportive on how and when I went through all my craziness and personality changes. Education gave me a purpose. My hard work and motivation was noticed by the Sisters and the schools which gave me motivation to work even harder.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner