ST. PETERSBURG — Kawanna Jenkins, 36, has a lengthy college transcript. It starts in 1994, when she graduated from high school.
But her story has been long, too. She had a son at 16, and her education often took a back seat to the demands of work and caring for him.
Jenkins' educational journey took a major step on Dec. 15 when she walked across the stage of the Mahaffey Theater during the USF St. Petersburg graduation ceremony.
Her newly earned bachelor's degree has provided an important lesson of persistence and perseverance for her now-20-year-old son.
But it also opens the door for greater opportunities for her at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, where she has worked since 2002 and has attained the rank of sergeant.
"Even though she missed classes and had to come late sometimes, she never gave up," said Mijeong Baek, a political science professor who has taught Jenkins.
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As a single mother finishing high school, Jenkins knew she needed to support her infant son and needed a job. But most jobs she looked for required some type of further education or experience.
She was young and didn't have experience. So she decided she needed to get an education, enrolling in classes at St. Petersburg College.
That spring, she met someone at a party who was talking about working with troubled youth at the Florida Youth Academy.
With a desire to work in corrections, she got a job there, earning $7.50 an hour.
But she found herself dropping classes to take overtime shifts to make sure she could continue to pay bills. And the struggle balancing school and work began to tug at her.
"It was kind of wearing on me at the time," Jenkins said. "I was going to school, not making very much money."
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One day, she received a call from the Sheriff's Office. She had been listed as a reference for a co-worker who was applying for a job there.
Jenkins said she knew she needed a change, as her schedule of work and homework and being a mother wasn't balancing out, even with the help of her mother and grandmother, who would watch her son while she worked.
After three years at her job, she was making $11 an hour, and she thought the Sheriff's Office might offer more career opportunities.
So she asked the woman on the phone if the Sheriff's Office was hiring, and when the woman said yes, she applied and landed a job as a deputy in the confinement housing unit at the Falkenburg Road Jail, where she was responsible for the custody and control of inmates.
Once again, Jenkins' education took a back seat, as her full-time schedule at the Sheriff's Academy made attending college classes difficult.
But over time, and with the help of the Sheriff's Office's tuition reimbursement program, Jenkins would earn an associate's degree from St. Petersburg College in 2007 and get promoted from corporal to sergeant — a management-level position in which she supervises other deputies.
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Jenkins could have stopped there. But she felt compelled to earn her bachelor's degree — at least for her son's sake.
So she enrolled at USF St. Petersburg in 2008, pursuing a degree in political science.
"My son was getting older and I wanted him to know that you shouldn't give up on stuff," Jenkins said, her voice cracking. "But I went back and I could only take one or two classes a semester, because I worked a 12-hour shift."
This past semester wasn't too bad, Jenkins said. She worked a 7 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift at the Sheriff's Office 14 days a month. She would get home by 8 a.m., sleep until about 12:30 p.m. and attend classes in St. Petersburg at 2 p.m. "I always sat in the front to make sure I didn't fall asleep," she said.
Baek, who taught Jenkins for three courses, said she noticed Jenkins sometimes came to school in her uniform. She knew Jenkins had missed class a few times and assignment deadlines because work got in the way. But she didn't know she had a son and didn't know about the other responsibilities she juggled.
"Kawanna never asked for exceptions," Baek said.
Baek said she teaches many students who juggle work and school, and Kawanna's persistence stood out.
"She completed all the assignments," Baek said.
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When Jenkins started pursuing her degree in political science, her intention was to one day go law school. But now, she thinks she'll stay with the Sheriff's Office, where her bachelor's degree will allow her to rise to the rank of lieutenant.
Her inspiration, she said, has been her son. She's trying to encourage him to apply to St. Petersburg College.
"I'm not an advocate of teen pregnancy or anything, but in the event you make a mistake, don't let it prevent you from moving forward," Jenkins said.
"I've never wanted to rely on anyone or anything to raise my son. I've always been a hard worker. He hasn't had everything he wanted, but he always had everything he needed."