Gadsden, Ala.— Karen Dixon isn’t your traditional college student. At 57 years old, she’s among just 2% of the student body at Gadsden State Community College who is 50 or older. She’s a first-generation student, a preacher’s wife and a former drug addict.
“God has really worked in my life,” she said. “I’ve come a long way to get to where I am today.”
Nov. 8 is the First-Generation College Student Celebration, which was launched in 2017 by the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-Generation Student Success. A first-generation student, like Dixon, is defined as a student whose parents do not have a four-year college degree. Some come from low-income households and are students of color, children of immigrant parents or working-class.
Dixon grew up in Toledo, Ohio, with her parents and six siblings. “I come from a middle-class family with hard-working parents but there was a lot of dysfunction and abuse,” she said. In 1983, she graduated from high school with honors and enrolled at Stautzenberger College with hopes of becoming a medical secretary. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. “I met a man and dropped out of school,” she said. “I met a man who loved the street life; a man who loved drugs, especially crack cocaine.”
At 21 years old, Dixon followed in the footsteps of her boyfriend and became a crack addict. She lost custody of her daughters, who were raised by family members. She spent the next 18 years battling a drug addiction that almost killed her. “I was in a really bad place when my sister asked me to go to Gadsden with her to visit family,” she said. “She knew I needed to get away from Toledo and all of the negativity in my life.”
As a child, Dixon frequently visited Gadsden, where both of her parents were raised. When she was 18, she met Rev. Thomas Dixon during a visit to Alabama. He was her first boyfriend. They eventually lost touch but, 18 years later, she saw him again during that trip with her sister.
We rekindled old flames,” she said. “Six months later after reuniting, I came back to Alabama and married him.” She said marrying Thomas helped her conquer drug addiction and saved her life.
“God gave me a second chance at life,” she said. “I am so grateful.” Thomas is the pastor of Cornerstone Church of the Living God in Cedar Bluff. “Thomas and the church had a hand in getting me away from drugs,” she said. “I went from being an addict to being the first lady of a church. God has a sense of humor, doesn’t He?”
Dixon has also been blessed with another chance at motherhood. She and Thomas are raising a 9-year-old foster daughter who has been in their care since she was 6 months old. “She is a joy in our life, and we are so proud of her,” she said.
With her life now full of positivity and hope, Dixon decided that it was time to return to college and earn a degree. At Gadsden State, she has earned a certificate in transcription and will graduate in May with a degree in Office Administration and a certificate in coding. She recently became a part of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and Student Support Services, which is a federally-funded program focused on the educational success of first-generation, low-income and/or disabled students.
“Education is very important,” Dixon said. “What would you do without an education? You need to go to school in order to get a good job. I believe in putting education first. It’s hard work but it’s worth it in the end.” Being an adult learner who has been out of high school for almost four decades isn’t easy but she refuses to give up. “I admit I was a little rusty when I enrolled at Gadsden State but I soon found my way,” she said. “God gave me the strength I needed. I promise, it gets easier with time.” Dixon tries to uplift other adult learners and first-generation students who are unsure of themselves. She’s a confidence booster and serves as a champion of others to keep them progressing towards their goals. She uses her own story as encouragement.
“I always want to help other people who are struggling,” she said. “I’ve been there, and I want them to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” Dixon wants to be there for her fellow students like others have been there for her. She gives a lot of credit to Fay Scott, an instructor at Gadsden State.
“When I felt like giving up, she wouldn’t let me,” she said. “She keeps saying, ‘Karen, you got this.’ I never thought I would understand coding. I was struggling with it. She called me in her office and showed me step-by-step how to do it. It finally clicked and I understood it. I couldn’t do this without her.”
Dixon exudes confidence and passion for her education at Gadsden State. When she’s reflective about what she has done in her own life, a smile comes across her face. “I feel good about myself at this point in my life,” she said. “Sometimes, I pat myself on the back and say, ‘You go, girl! Look what you have achieved!’”
For more information about Student Support Services and the opportunities available to first-generation students, visit gadsdenstate.edu/trio.