HATTIESBURG — Graduating from college is an incredibly rewarding feat, even more so when the journey has taken nearly 20 years to complete. KaSondra Toney is a single mom, a dedicated student and a soon-to-be graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the School of Child and Family Sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“KaSondra has battled exhaustion, financial hardship and disappointment with an inspiring determination,” said Angel Herring, associate director of the College of Education and Human Sciences. “She sets a positive example for her children of what you can achieve, even in the face of difficulties.”
When Herring heard about the Judge R.J. Bishop Mississippian Award, she immediately thought of Toney. The Bishop Award honors men and women who have endured financial and/or personal hardships to pursue their education so that they, their children and other Mississippians might have a better life. Considering the obstacles Toney has overcome, it almost seemed like the award criteria were written about her life.
Raised in Foxworth, Toney first enrolled at Southern Miss in the fall of 2001. She moved into Pinehaven family housing on the Hattiesburg campus with Kaylin, her then 1-year-old daughter. After getting married shortly after the semester began, Toney made the difficult decision to withdraw from school. Her growing family became her primary focus.
In 2015, Toney found herself the sole provider for her family. Seeking to create a better life for her children and pursue her lifelong dream of graduating college, she re-enrolled in classes at USM while continuing to work full time. Her sites were set on a productive school year until she received the news that her youngest son, Brenan, was diagnosed with Mixed Expressive and Receptive Language Disorder. This communication disorder caused Brenan difficulty understanding words and sentences.
Toney struggled to pay attention to her schoolwork knowing her son, and two other children, needed and deserved her full support. Although it was discouraging to put her education on hold again, the wellbeing of her family was her primary concern.
Toney was able to start classes again in 2017 with an unwavering determination to finish her degree this time. The following year, Brenan was accepted into the DuBard School for Language Disorders at USM, and Kaylin was accepted into the USM Honors College. Everything was finally coming together for the family to learn and grow together at Southern Miss. Accepting a daily commute from their home on the Gulf Coast to Hattiesburg seemed manageable in light of all the past hurdles they had conquered.
“For my family, I put my education on hold,” Toney said. “But it’s also because of them that I was driven to pursue my education again after so many years had passed.”
Each weekday morning, Toney began the first leg of her hour-and-20-minute commute. After dropping her son off at the DuBard School, she attended classes and her on-campus job as a student worker for the School of Psychology. Although safety precautions implemented by the University to protect students during the COVID-19 pandemic altered the Toney family’s normal routine for the spring 2020 semester, Toney has completed her degree requirements and plans to attend the rescheduled commencement ceremony in August.
“I’ve always worked to be a better version of myself with each new day and provide my children with happy, stable and secure lives,” Toney said. “My path to graduation is far from typical, but the challenges I’ve faced have shaped me into the mom and the professional I was destined to become. Seeing Kaylin follow in my footsteps at USM confirms every step was worth it.”
The years have held uncertainty, times of doubt and countless hours of hard work for Toney. With the scholarship that accompanies the Bishop Award, she will enter the next chapter of her life with less financial stress and more gratitude for the ways the USM community has helped her persevere.
“Receiving such a substantial award relieves a lot of stress that was hanging over me due to the debt I accrued while pursuing my educational goals and raising three children,” Toney said. “For that, I am extremely grateful.”