It’s commencement season again and students are proudly walking across stages around the country to receive their diplomas. But at Oklahoma State University, the ceremony will be notably special for Yokolanda and Ciara Speight, a mother-daughter duo who will graduate from Spears School of Business together.
“We’re going to walk together and some people will see us for the first time,” Ciara, the daughter of the duo, says. “But for us, we’ve been walking together since the day I was born.”
Yokolanda was 16 when she learned she was pregnant with Ciara. Two days after she broke the news to her mom and grandmother, both of whom had raised their own children as single mothers, her grandmother had lined up an abortion for her.
“They did not want me to go through the same thing they did,” Yokolanda says. “They wanted better for me and this was how they thought it had to be.”
Desperate, she says she turned to her boyfriend and his parents and asked that they talk to her mother and grandmother and convince them to let her keep the baby. They convinced Yokolanda’s family to keep the baby, but the verdict was not much easier – Yokolanda would move out from under their roof.
To keep Ciara, Yokolanda dropped out of high school and moved in with her boyfriend and his parents. In doing so, she also gave up a full-ride scholarship to a performing arts school.
“I have no regrets. None,” Yokolanda says. “My children are my greatest accomplishment.”
THE LONG AND WINDY PATH TO COLLEGE
At Spears, Yokolanda studied business administration management while Ciara studied business administration nonprofit management. While both of them will graduate together, neither of them had traditional college journeys.
Two years after having Ciara, Yokolanda became pregnant with her second child and stayed home to take care of both her children while her husband worked. When the kids went to elementary school, Yokolanda began taking classes at the local technology center and earned her GED. When her father-in-law decided to sell their family home in 2005, Yokolanda and her husband decided to move to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she began working as an administrative assistant at the university.
Ciara went to high school in Stillwater and graduated in 2008. From there, she went straight to Oklahoma State University with a focus in business entrepreneurship. But in the second semester of her freshman year, Yokolanda was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and Ciara dropped out of college to help take care of her mother.
“I was in a lot of pain. The three-minute walk to the building I worked in turned into 15 minutes and every minute hurt,” she says. “I went all over Stillwater looking for a doctor to perform the surgery to give me artificial knees but everyone said I was too young because I was in my 30s.”
She eventually took the search outside of Stillwater and found a doctor who was willing to perform the procedure given her “low quality of life at such a young age.” She had been using a cane for three years then.
In 2009, Yokolanda had artificial knee surgery on both her legs over the course of three months. She says Ciara was with her day and night. When her physiotherapy journey began, Ciara supported her through her sessions and watched as her mother regained her strength.
All the while, Ciara began work as a nanny and worked closely with the arts council in Oklahoma as a singer-songwriter.
While working full-time and taking care of the family, Yokolanda says her husband brought up the idea of her going to college, something she’d always wanted to do but never thought of after she had kids.
“I did it. I went and enrolled myself in community college, in business administration,” she says. “When we had to do a group project where we came up with a business plan and had to find ways to fund it, an instructor said she was impressed with my work, and that was it. It encouraged me to continue.”
Yokolanda earned her associates degree, and in 2016, she says she said to Ciara: “I dropped out of high school to keep you, and look I’m going back.”
And so in 2016, both ladies went back to school.
“My mother is my best friend. We do lots of things together,” Ciara says.
UP NEXT: AN MBA TOGETHER?
With Yokolanda working full time at the university’s College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology, she had to take many classes online. She had only 45 or so credit units left to complete and estimated it would take two years. Ciara worked part time at the same college and so attended more classes in person.
And whenever they’ve had a chance to take a class together, like statistics and business law, they’ve relished the opportunity to spur each other on.
“Sometimes, we have to watch videos for our classes and we’ll hook it up to the TV and watch them and take notes together,” Ciara says. “Sometimes we’ll go to a place here in town, get lunch and hang out with our papers spread across the table, quizzing each other and reviewing notes.”
After returning to Spears, Ciara switched her focus from entrepreneurship to nonprofit management. Ciara says she learned in the time away from school that Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration in the nation and hopes to establish a business that employs formerly incarcerated women.
“I’ll need to partner with nonprofit organizations so I want to understand the challenges they face and how they operate,” Ciara says.
With all the obstacles they’ve carried each other through so far, the mother and daughter both agree that after graduating, it’s time to take a break, not from each other though.
Ciara says that because her mother really wanted them to graduate together, she’s had to take classes during the winter and summer sessions to graduate with Yokolanda. “It’s been a while since I exhaled,” she says, and they’ve been talking about taking a vacation together.
Yokolanda’s husband and son were at the ceremony on May 11 to support the duo. And she says their educational journey together is far from over. The two have plans to enroll in an MBA program next year. After all, Yokolanda says, this is only the beginning.
“In completing this and getting to the point of graduation, I realize I’m worth it,” Yokolanda says. “We invest in so many things all the time, why not invest in yourself? Earning this degree has boosted my self-confidence and self-esteem. I’m worth it, and I deserve an education.”
And as for Ciara, she says she’s thankful to her mother for more than just urging her to go back to school.
“I’m so happy to have gone through this undergrad journey with her. It’s extremely valuable being able to encourage each other,” she says. “My mom has shown me that I don’t have to hold myself to the timeline others are on. I’m 29 and getting my undergrad, but I just have to keep moving forward and embrace my journey.”