Katherine Sherman brings her 8-year-old son, Liam, to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga every chance she gets.
They live about 40 minutes away in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, but their experiences and adventures on campus are always well worth the drive, said Sherman, who graduates Saturday, May 7, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in business administration.
Liam’s favorite spot on campus is the pool at the Aquatic Recreation Center, but that might change when he goes to McKenzie Arena for the first time to see his mom earn her diploma.
Sherman is determined to stay connected to UTC after commencement.
“It’s bittersweet because I don’t really want to leave,” not least of all because she and Liam have so much fun here, she said.
“I grew up poor and for children who come from poverty, college is really just a dream,” she said.
“That’s why I bring him to campus. I want him to know all about college. I want it to be tangible for him.”
The mother-son duo delight in trying new things and enjoy the University’s culture and diversity events the most, she said, especially ones with food. At an April event in the University Center, they got to try, among other things, Hawaiian-style Spam fried rice. (Liam was a big fan.)
“We don’t always like it all, but we try it all,” said Sherman, 32.
“Exposing him to different people and cultures is important, and UTC is one of the most diverse places in Chattanooga. It’s better for kids to grow up that way,” said Sherman, a first-generation college student raised in almost the opposite fashion.
Born in Daleville, Alabama, she grew up not far from Chattanooga in rural Dade County, Georgia. Her childhood was turbulent, marred by abuse, trauma and a stint at a domestic violence shelter when she was 7 years old, the same year she decided to go to college.
“All I could see was that people who went to college had nicer things, nicer houses. And that’s what I wanted,” said Sherman.
But her path to graduating from UTC was not easy and far from direct, not least of all because her family believed “a woman’s place was in the home,” she said.
So she moved out on her own at 18. She eventually landed in Tallahassee, Florida, got married, had Liam and started pursuing her associate’s degree.
But it was anything but a happy ending. After her husband’s abuse became too much for her to bear, Sherman and Liam moved back to Tennessee in 2018.
A family member let them live in an abandoned ramshackle farmhouse on the outskirts of South Pittsburg.
They slept in a tent she set up in the living room to keep the mice and rats at bay. The refrigerator had to be kept on the porch because of wonky wiring. “Bird baths” with water boiled on the stove were also part of the daily grind of life for them during that time.
“It was horrible and traumatic,” she said, “but all Liam remembers, hopefully, was camping.”
Sherman said she was in survival mode and didn’t have time to feel bad.
“When you’re busy surviving and struggling, sometimes you just need to focus on the now for your mental health and to not lose sight of your goals,” she said.
She got a job making $7 an hour at the local Goodwill and was able to complete her associate’s degree online at Tallahassee Community College from Tennessee.
“Sometimes I’d save up $45 so we could go to a hotel for a night,” she said, “and I did my homework sitting in my car in the McDonald’s parking lot so I could use the Wi-Fi.”
She eventually qualified for government housing assistance, got an apartment and was accepted at UTC as a spring 2020 transfer student.
Then the pandemic hit. But the world’s timeout gave Sherman the chance to focus full-time on school and raising Liam.
She decided to pursue industrial psychology thanks to a bit of inspiration from her Goodwill colleagues, some of whom self-identify as neurodivergent, a relatively new term used to describe people who think in an atypical way.
Both she and Liam have been diagnosed with ADHD, considered a form of neurodivergence, she said.
“Meeting people in that community and connecting as part of that community got me interested in psychology and working in employee relations, which is what industrial psychology is all about,” she said.
Combined with her innate draw to cultural exploration at UTC, Sherman feels confident in her career path.
“In modern times we need to integrate our different backgrounds and cultures and flavors of people so we can do our jobs well,” she said.
“Most people are loving and kind, so it’s about teaching and educating ourselves despite our differences so we can be successful, whether that’s in the workplace or school.”