Wanita Scott’s bachelor’s degree in child and family studies isn’t just an accomplishment for her, it’s a lesson for six children.
As a single mother, Scott, 40, has been raising her own three children and three of her cousin’s, all while regularly making the Dean’s List at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and pursuing the degree she’ll be awarded Saturday.
“I want to inspire them all to know that, no matter where you’ve been in life, the past doesn’t have to define who you are in the present,” Scott said.
When her past found Scott living in Fort Myers, Florida, raising three children alone and dealing with cocaine addiction in herself and her partner as well as their abusive, 10-year relationship, she resolved to change her future.
“My father who raised me, Dennis Lee Scott Sr., lived in Tennessee. I called him, and he was in Florida in 12 hours,” Scott said. “The next thing you know, I’m in Tennessee, I have a job at Waffle House, an apartment, and I begin my college adventure at Chattanooga State.”
Initially, she thought she would become a teacher, a natural fit with her love for children and desire to nurture them. Given her solo responsibility to provide for her own three children, however, she chose a major in nursing. With demand for nurses exceeding supply, Scott believed the choice would mean a good living for her and stability for her family.
“And I pursued that until getting all the way to the start of the R.N. course work, and then I lost my first patient,” she said. “The family couldn’t afford professional help, and I needed money, so they paid me some by the hour, and I took care of her.
“She was Mrs. Ella B. Kelso, and I didn’t just care for her, I cared about her. I was still with her even after her grandson and I stopped dating. I helped her for 18 months and then, when her time came and she passed away, I was devastated, and I learned something important about myself. I learned I couldn’t be a nurse because I would never be able to cope with that kind of loss as part of my job.”
Scott dropped out of college, took a full-time job with an online retailer and pondered the “purpose for my life.”
In the meantime, she received a call from authorities in Florida. Her cousin’s three children were about to become wards of the state unless she could take custody of them. Scott took them in but soon after she and the six young people — ages 12, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 — were evicted from her apartment for exceeding its occupancy limit. Eventually, public assistance to help her as legal guardian of the extra three children enabled Scott to rent an adequate-sized living space.
After getting her personal life settled and spending a semester away from college, she resumed her studies at UTC.
“The break between Chattanooga State and UTC helped me decide where I needed to be,” Scott said. “When the kids came to live with me from Florida, I realized, ‘This is what I want to do.’ From going through my own past, I wanted to prevent others from going through some of that.
“I was blessed to have my own three and to have the other three turned out to be a great blessing, too. From that, I made my decision to become a better person and a better mother.”
She also was inspired by her aunt, Shirley Scott, a cancer survivor who has given Wanita Scott financial help—which she dutifully repays. Now majoring in child and family studies, her course work, combined with the behavioral and other challenges faced by some of the children she was raising, convinced her that the children had important needs she was unable to meet.
“I reached out to a lot of social workers to see if it might be possible to have someone come in and talk to the kids. I knew they needed extra help, and I knew enough to know that I couldn’t give it to them,” Scott said. “Also, I realized that I needed to familiarize myself with how to deal with certain situations.”
She learned both in class and at home, and what she learned in one setting has been helpful in the other.
Upon graduation from UTC, Scott hopes to put her education and experience to work full-time as a group therapy facilitator with a mental health treatment and addiction recovery provider.
“Through my experiences, I’ve been shown where it is that I needed to be, and I know I’m doing this because it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ll be helping children who may be dealing with addiction,” she said. “It’s amazing and sometimes overwhelming. I never believed this would be me.”
Because of Dennis Lee Scott Sr.’s death in 2017, her “biggest supporter,” won’t see her graduate. Although he’s not her biological father, she calls him “my daddy.”
“When I lost him, that was so hard. I had to make the funeral arrangements, keep going to school,” she said. “I told myself his loss wouldn’t be my excuse but my motivation.”
Meanwhile, she’s also been rebuilding a relationship with her biological father, who is expected to attend commencement. And her cousin has made strides against personal issues and is now living with Scott.
“My cousin deserves thanks for her trust in me with her children, for overcoming her own obstacles, and that gave me purpose and inspiration and motivation to keep going. That made everything even more worth the effort,” Scott said.
“What I want to provide for the children—my cousin’s children and my cousin, herself, now that she’s with me, too—is to inspire them to know that where you’ve been doesn’t have to limit where you can go.
“Ten years ago, you couldn’t have told me I would be getting a bachelor’s degree. Once I was on that path, though, with my kids watching, I wasn’t ever going to give up.”