While proudly donning her graduate cap and gown, Henrietta Smothers excitedly walked across the stage during UALR’s 2005 spring commencement to receive her hard-earned master’s degree in criminal justice.
The only problem is that Smothers, parent coordinator at Little Rock School District, had not quite finished all the requirements for her degree.
Fourteen years after beginning her master’s degree and 11 years after participating in commencement, Smothers graduated from UALR during the 2016 spring commencement May 14 at the Jack Stephens Center.
The first time around, Smothers completed her coursework and did the research for her final paper on preparing non-violent drug offenders for successful re-entry into society. She just needed to write it down and turn it in.
As Smothers laments, with four children to raise and a new business to run, life got in the way.
“I started a new business, and that took up all my time,” she said. “BE Keepers was a tutoring business for children. I had several locations in the state. Managing everything was very time consuming, and I just never stopped long enough to do the paper.”
In 2012, Arkansas changed the way it provided funding for supplemental education service providers, leaving many outside providers like BE Keepers without contracts.
Without the business taking up all Smothers’ time, her four children and several professors at UALR urged her to finish her degree.
“I am so glad that she is graduating,” said Dr. David Montague, UALR professor of criminal justice and interim director of eLearning. “Henri is one of those folks that really represents what UALR does best, helping people who had trouble getting through school to finish. She had a long road, but she did it, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
In August 2013, Smothers re-enrolled at UALR. Due to the time lapse, she had to take an additional four courses as well as finish the final paper to graduate.
When Smothers first enrolled in the criminal justice master’s program in 2002, it represented a return to school nearly 25 years after completing her bachelor’s degree in business administration from LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis. She made the decision to encourage her children to pursue higher education.
“I was the first person from my family to graduate from college,” she said. “At the time, my daughters, Sasschon and Jessica, had graduated from Central High School, and Valerie had graduated from Mount Saint Mary. If my daughters had a college degree, we would be at the same level, so I had to get my master’s degree. I had to stay a step ahead, because I wanted my children to know that they needed to do better than me.”
While earning her master’s degree took a little longer than she originally anticipated, Smothers was successful in inspiring her children to pursue higher education.
Three of her children have college degrees, and her youngest, Justin Henderson, will graduate in the fall.
Meanwhile, her oldest daughter, Dr. Valerie Henderson, earned a doctorate in psychology from Southern Illinois University and is now a licensed clinical psychologist in Wisconsin.
Another daughter, Sasschon Henderson, went on to earn a master’s degree in public health from Emory University and is an information technology project manager.
“Education is so important in our household,” Smothers said. “We believe that it will make a foundation for wherever you want to go in life. We believe you need education that will make you knowledgeable, well rounded, and will open up other opportunities that may not be available to you if you do not have a college education.”
“I regret Dr. Chastain did not live to see me finally accomplish this task,” Smothers said. “He was one of my favorite professors. He was always asking me when I was going to finish my degree.”
Looking back on her 14-year journey to graduation, Smothers would encourage anyone to take the steps necessary to complete a degree.
“Keep moving forward, one step at a time. That would be my advice,” she said. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You have to keep moving forward even when you stop and stumble and don’t think you are going to make it. I did stumble many times, but I made it.”