Sitting in a corner booth at the Beaufort IHOP, Nancy Brink and Denise Latham settle in with their iced vanilla coffees and start to tell their stories in stereo. They are sisters. Nancy is the youngest of four siblings. Denise is the oldest. Nancy has blue eyes. Denise has brown eyes. Nancy sits forward and with bubbly enthusiasm takes charge. Denise sits back, initially more reserved. Nancy has two daughters, 15 and 13. Denise has two sons, 17 and 12.
Despite these apparent differences and the eight years that separate them, three years ago they found themselves in identical situations. They both decided to end their difficult marriages and filed for divorce. They both had custody and responsibility for their children. They both had serious financial difficulties. Nancy had an associate degree in business but her career possibilities were at a dead end. Denise graduated from high school, married and spent her adult life staying home to care for five stepchildren and her own two sons. She had no work experience. They both felt overwhelmed and stuck.
And here their story takes a turn. Nancy's blue eyes are fierce, with a flash of humor. "We always say, 'God doesn't give us more than we can handle...he just has a lot of faith in us.' I decided I was going back to school-and Denise was going with me." Denise sits forward and says, "I was almost 40. It was 22 years since I'd been in a classroom. Nancy interrupts, laughing, "She told me she was too old and she wasn't smart enough and I said, 'Are you dead? Can you still read? You're going.'" Later in the conversation I will learn that Nancy has always called Denise "Mother"; that when they were growing up it was Denise who often took care of her younger brothers and sister during their parents' strained marriage that ended when Nancy was 11 and Denise had already left the house. Denise is the maternal caretaker who learned early to put everyone before herself. Nancy was determined that they were both going to do something for themselves to make life better.
It would be hard to resist the sheer energy and force of Nancy's will. Together they went to TCL at Beaufort (Technical College of the Lowcountry) where Nancy had earned her first associate degree. Together they applied for and received Pell grants which covered the full expense of tuition and books. Denise spoke with a placement officer, took her aptitude tests (which indicated no need for remedial classes) and enrolled for her degree in Applied Science with a major in Administrative Office Technology. Nancy enrolled for a second degree in Applied Science, this time with a major in Industrial Electronic Technology. They both began January, 2009.
This is a story of courage and discipline and determination, but it is not a fairytale. They both describe "college" as an escape from the on-going worries at home; as self-affirming; as a positive role-model for their children. Nancy, who was one of the only women in her major, was known as "one hot dude" by her male classmates. But in reality they were struggling single moms trying to juggle the needs of their children and households with the demands of a heavy course load. It was a constant balancing act. Children got resentful. Things went undone. There was little encouragement during those long, late nights at the computer, except for the hard knot of determination that comes from someplace inside.
It was a hard won victory but both Nancy and Denise graduated early-December of 2010-with honors. Denise graduated cum laude with a GPA of 3.6. Nancy graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. We sit in our corner booth and it is emotional. The fact of their achievement, against so many obstacles, sits there as well, too huge to be reduced by words.
Nancy's eyes are shining, unblinking as she finally speaks, "I'm going to succeed in spite of my past. We deserve better. Nothing in this world is going to stop me or my girls." Denise begins to talk quietly about heroes, referring to her father as one. Nancy remembers her father as the man who left and there is quiet disagreement. I ask Denise how she defines a hero and she says, "Somebody who can go through life experiences and it doesn't change who they are. It makes them stronger."
I ask these strong, smart sisters what they want other women to know. They both agree nobody and nothing can stop you if you really want to do something. The only real limits are the ones we put on ourselves. Help is out there. There are good people who want you to succeed and will help you. In the end it's up to you. You've got to do it for you.
Women struggle; only the circumstances and degrees change. What remains the amazing story is what some women are able to overcome and achieve.
Unsung talents: Nancy sang in the talent show at the Beaufort Water Festival
Children: Nancy's two daughters: Katlyn (15) and Candace (13); Denise's two sons: Dakota (17) and Charlie (12)
Back to School: Nancy returned to college at age 31 and Denise at age 39.
Beliefs: Faith in God and sheer determination