URI graduate turns tragedy into transcript

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KINGSTON, R.I. –May 8, 2007 –The University of Rhode Island’s Black Scholar Awards honored some of the university’s most promising students this spring. Among them was 57-year-old non-traditional student Sharon Isom of the east side of Providence, who five years earlier would never have expected to even be in school. Isom will graduate this month.

The ‘90s were a difficult time for Isom, as she battled breast cancer and the grief of losing six siblings and a mother. “I had a lot of tragedy,“ Isom explained. “But there is not anything in this world that you can’t do. Yeah, you get held back; you cry. But then you just hold on and keep moving, and keep moving and keep moving.”

Isom came to URI in search of answers. All of her siblings had become involved in drugs. The six who died lost their lives to overdoses and AIDS. “Something had to happen,” Isom said. “I lost my whole family. I was right there. How did I not get into it? How does this happen?”

Isom found answers in one of her first courses at URI’s Feinstein Providence Campus. The course, “Blacks in the Legal System,” introduced Isom to Cynthia Hamilton,” director and professor of the African-American Studies and professor of political science.

Hamilton, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year after coming to the University, made an instant connection with Isom. In fact, for the last two years, Isom has commuted to the Kingston campus to continue to take Hamilton’s courses.

Isom said that Hamilton helped her focus on her African-American major and encouraged her to pick up women’s studies minor. “Between the cancer and the MS, we got it going on,” Isom joked.

More seriously, Isom explained that she owes much of her motivation to Hamilton. “I don’t know who pushes who more,” Isom explained. “Because we’re here for a reason. You get these life-threatening diseases, and you wonder why you are here.”

Hamilton said that she enjoys teaching at URI’s Feinstein Providence Campus because the non-traditional students who attend have had experiences that have caused them to come back to school.

“Academics can be applied to real life,” Hamilton said. “It is not separate. It is positive for me to hear Sharon say ‘I want answers.’ When your education speaks about your life, that’s when you make learning come alive.”

Isom received the Onyx Award at the Black Scholar Awards and was inducted into the Onyx Senior Honor Society, which acknowledges students who have excelled in academics, placing emphasis on heritage, humanity, and humility. She also received the Arthur L. Hardge Award that acknowledged her all-around outstanding community service.

Isom moved to Georgia in the late ‘90s to get away for a while. While there, she volunteered at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport where she established a program called “Small Friday Tours.” Each Friday, Isom took children from the surrounding areas, who would never have had a chance to go to an airport, to tour the airplanes and take pictures with the pilots.

She currently works in several URI offices, including the Special Programs Office and the bookstore. She has also spent a great deal of time getting the message out to other women that “cancer is not a death sentence; it’s a wakeup call.”

“A lot of women get depressed,” Isom explained. “But don’t. This is what you do – you go back to school or whatever makes you happy. It’s different for different people. But it’s all about positivity.”

Hamilton has encouraged Isom to attend graduate school. Isom took her advice and will study political science next year at URI. She eventually plans to teach, and will most likely focus on African-American studies.

“I have a great passion for this,” Isom explained. “It’s not a job for me. I wake up and I feel so refreshed because I am going to learn something. I stay happy. I think that’s the cure for cancer.”

Isom is a mother of two with eight grandchildren. She shares with them the strong mindset she has adopted. “I fought insanity,” she said. “Then I said it’s time to get tough. Time to pull up your Huggies and fight.”

Pictured above

URI soon-to-be graduate Sharon Isom ( R) of the east side of Providence receives congratulations from friend, Melvoid Benson, who sits on the North Kingstown School Committee during the recent Black Scholar Awards Program. URI News Bureau Photo by Michael Salerno Photography.