What’s stopping you? Northeast Campus student starts college as a grandmother, changes her family’s life

When Celia Mwakutuya enrolled at Tarrant County College, she had one goal in mind: to quit school.

“My son wouldn’t go to college, so I thought, ‘Let me go. Maybe I will motivate my son,’” recalled Mwakutuya of starting her studies at TCC in 2012. “I wanted him to enroll, and then I was going to drop out. After my first semester, my son said, ‘Mom, I need to challenge you. I’m going to school too.’”

Mwakutuya’s plan for her son Kelvin Chipato may have been successful, but her own plan—to drop out—didn’t materialize.

“I never thought I would do well in college,” she said. “I didn’t have a regular high school background. But I loved it, so I stayed even after my son enrolled.”

Mwakutuya and Chipato immigrated from Zimbabwe in 1999. Other family members already had come to Texas, and Mwakutuya wanted to care for her grandchildren and enjoy being near relatives. She took a job at Carter BloodCare, where a colleague who attended Southeast Campus and also was from Africa told her about TCC. Mwakutuya was interested in TCC for Chipato, who had finished high school shortly after arriving in Texas but had dropped out of college. Mwakutuya was still determined for her son to earn a degree. So she went through with her plan to motivate Chipato by enrolling at Northeast Campus—and in the process discovered her own path forward.

Mwakutuya began with developmental studies, which build knowledge for college-level classes. She also participated in the Chancellor’s Emerging Leaders Program, designed to instill skills and qualities to help students become successful in college and in their careers. Mwakutuya and fellow Emerging Leader participants met community leaders, shadowed professionals from the business world and learned from faculty mentors. Suddenly, Mwakutuya had a real goal and plans for a different kind of life.

“Emerging Leaders helped me understand the college experience and overcome problems,” Mwakutuya said. “The program connected me to people who showed me how to be a leader. It motivated me and gave me courage and confidence.”

That change didn’t go unnoticed by those around her.

“I would ask for updates on Emerging Leaders students, and Celia’s name kept coming up as someone who was dedicated to her studies and achievements,” remembered Magdalena de la Teja, vice president for Student Development Services at Northeast Campus. “When I attended Emerging Leaders events, I noticed Celia start to engage more and interact with the chancellor, me and other participants.”

Her accomplishments had the exact effect on her son that she had hoped.

“I had given up. But if she was going to college, I needed to go back to school and try,” Chipato said, then added jokingly, “I already had credits from when I was enrolled before. I couldn’t let her graduate before me.”

Mom and son became fellow students. For someone who was initially unsure of her ability to navigate college, Mwakutuya quickly excelled. She decided she wanted to become a social worker, setting her sights on not only an associate degree but also a bachelor’s degree. Mwakutuya worked closely with her professors when she had challenges. When she didn’t have money to buy books, her instructors loaned the books to her. She met with an advisor to ensure she was following the right path and became a regular at campus learning labs for tutoring. While she was conscious that she was older than the students enrolling straight out of high school, she didn’t let that derail her.

“Celia works hard, comes to class prepared and attends as many Supplemental Instruction sessions as possible,” said Cathryn Miller, assistant professor of mathematics, who taught Mwakutuya’s statistics course. “She attends office hours and comes with specific questions. I wish I had more students like Celia. She never gives up!”

Throughout her studies, Mwakutuya continued her full-time job with Carter BloodCare.

“Celia became very focused and determined,” said Lydia Njua Ngenge, the coworker who introduced her to TCC. “College has really changed things for her.”

Mwakutuya wasn’t the only one in her family finding success at TCC. Her son graduated with his associate degree in 2014 and went on to the University of North Texas. Chipato recently earned his bachelor’s degree in supply chain management and logistics. He will enroll in a UNT master’s degree program later this year.

chipato_kelvin_unt_01“I felt like a flying eagle when I saw Kelvin graduate from TCC and UNT,” reflected Mwakutuya. “I had tears of joy.”

Next it’s Mwakutuya’s turn. She will graduate with her associate degree this May and transfer in the fall to Texas Woman’s University.

“I’m very proud of her,” emphasized Chipato. “It’s a big moment. She’s a totally different person now, and that’s because of what she’s accomplished at TCC.”

The hard work by this grandmother of seven has set a new standard in her family.

“They’re all so excited,” Mwakutuya smiled. “I tell them, ‘If Grandma can do it, so can you.’”

She says that goes for every prospective student.

“It is never too late to go to school. It’s just a question of having the determination to face challenges. It helps to have somebody pushing you. You need some motivators. TCC can do that for you.”

Mwakutuya’s story is the second in a year-long series celebrating TCC students, many tied to TCC’s 2016 awareness campaign focusing on “What’s stopping you?” Follow the link below to enjoy the previous feature: Salma Alvarez.