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UA Little Rock Alum Cassandra Booker Overcomes Incredible Odds That Lead to a Family Legacy of College Graduates

Photo of Cassandra Booker by Ben Krain.
Cassandra Booker. Photo by Ben Krain.

Cassandra Booker, a 2008 graduate of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, overcame incredible odds to graduate with the bachelor’s degree that she is so thankful for. Yet, her college journey is far from over.

Booker first attended UA Little Rock in 1978 when she was 27, but she soon left college to support her family.

“My journey by far is not like most. I found myself pregnant with my second child and responsible not only for them, but three siblings,” she said. “I wasn’t able to figure all this out as a single mom. I decided to put school on the back burner and work two jobs to care for the children. It was crazy but there were no other options for me. My sisters had to be safe. When you are dealing with addiction and mental illness with your family members, it is even harder.”

Booker said that setting a good example for her family and showing them the value of hard work and education has always been her motivation to succeed.

“I worked two jobs for years to provide because I did not want to depend on the state or compromise my integrity to keep a roof over our heads,” she said. “As long as I can remember, I have lived in a survival mold. Not because I wanted to, because I didn’t want the other option. It has always been me and God, and I had my siblings watching.”

In 2000, Booker’s life took an unexpected turn when she was laid off from her job. She decided to go after the degree she left behind more than two decades earlier.

“When it came to going back to school in 2000, the only other option was to be laid off and do nothing,” Booker said. “To me, that was not an option so I chose to go back to school. I was afraid, embarrassed, unprepared, and uneducated for college life.”

TRiO Student Support Services turned out to be Booker’s key to prepare for the long-awaited return to college. She took classes on college preparation and met with academic advisors, mentors, and career counselors to help with her college education.

“Ms. Valerie Brown (former director of TRiO) was there to help connect me with mentors and tutors,” she said. “Ms. Brown followed me and ensured that I had guidance counselors, academic advisors, and that they did their jobs. Her and Gus Swain (a counselor) were advocates for the advancement of higher education. They pushed us to do our best and worked with us if necessary to get the resources we needed.”

Several caring professors also served as mentors for Booker and helped her through some difficult times in her life.

“They did not just care about our education,” Booker said. “They cared about our families. We talked about my health and all. I had 27 hospital stays while at UALR, but my professors ensured that I got my assignments and turned them in. Even in the hospital in the rain, they came through. I really appreciate professors like Dr. Briscoe and Dr. Krain, who was also my academic advisor and stood up for me regarding an internship. I love them both.”

Photo of Cassandra Booker by Ben Krain.
Photo of Cassandra Booker by Ben Krain.

Going to college turned into a family affair as Booker’s younger sisters also earned degrees at UA Little Rock.

“My sister worked at UA Little Rock the first time I got on the Dean’s List,” Booker said. “They were so proud of me to know that I made the Dean’s List. It’s crazy how I look back at how we started, how God blessed us all, and how my siblings and I ended up where we are today. There was a time I didn’t think it was even possible that we would all graduate from college.”

In 2008, Booker’s long fought journey to complete her college education came to fruition with a bachelor’s degree in social work and a minor in psychology. It was even a suggestion by an inspirational professor that sent her on her current career journey to help children and Alzheimer’s patients.

“Dr. Carolyn Turturro (former gerontology program coordinator) told me that I had a spirit that would work well with geriatrics before I even knew what that was,” Booker said. “I went on to work and care for Alzheimer’s patients for 15 years. Go figure. I loved it.”

While she currently works as an administrator with DCFS, Booker has also worked as a case manager, paraprofessional, sponsor in recovery, and an investigator with DCFS.

“I have been with the state a total of 18 years, and it has been a ride,” Booker said. “Professors like David Briscoe and Mark Krain showed me what a good social worker looks like. Without the tools that were given to me and the support that was shown to me from the faithful few, I would not be where I am.”

As she looks back on her time at UA Little Rock, Booker is grateful not only for her degree, but also that her sisters were able to earn their college degrees as well.

“I tell people I earned this degree for sure,” Booker said. “We came from small beginnings, but God had me and two of my siblings all on that campus at the same time and we all have graduated with degrees.”

Booker and her family aren’t finished with UA Little Rock yet. She and her granddaughter, Airianna McDaniel, are both planning to go to UA Little Rock in 2022 to pursue graduate degrees together.

McDaniel, who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work from Philander Smith University this December, and her grandmother are both applying for UA Little Rock’s Master of Social Work Program. For Booker, it will be the third time she’s attended UA Little Rock throughout her 45-year history with the university.

“Airianna is my oldest grandchild out of 14,” Booker said. “I’ve worked really hard to maintain my health because I want us to do this together. That’s our plan. Whatever we do, we are going to enter the master’s program together, me and my oldest grandchild. We’ve excited to do this together.”