On Dec. 6, Yemekia Steele, 22, became the first in her family to graduate college. Raised in New Orleans by her grandmother, Steele met her mother for the first time at the age of 13.
“My mother was on drugs. She was not able to care for me. I thought it (the meeting) would create a relationship for the two of us, but it didn’t,” she shared.
Then, in 2008, Steele’s grandmother passed away, and custody was transferred to her father. However, his lack of stability, battle with alcoholism, and abusive behavior led to her being placed in foster care.
At the age of 14, Steele spent the first night of many in a group home, where she struggled to process the abrupt changes in her environment. “I became very angry and bitter, and I resented a lot of things. I was unable to communicate my feelings for a very long time,” she revealed.
Enraged with the world about things beyond her control, Steele found it challenging to appreciate positive people in her life. She shared that in time she grew to understand that lashing out was not the right way to resolve her issues.
“As I grew older, I knew that I needed to handle my anger and forgive so that I could live a better life,” said Steele, who bounced around from home to home until finally aging out of the Department of Human Services system.
After receiving an associate degree from Hinds Community College in 2015, she enrolled at Jackson State University in 2017.
“I chose Jackson State because it feels like home. It’s a huge campus, but the people are very connected to you,” said Steele. “They care about where you’re trying to go and what you’re trying to do.”
Steele said spending a chunk of her life in group homes influenced her decision to major in social work.
“I would see a bunch of women coming in and out and doing different things for the children,” she said.
Eventually, she met a caseworker for some of the children in foster care. “I asked her a couple of questions about what they do and what she liked about her job and what she didn’t like. That was kind of where my interest in social work began,” she explained.
Steele said that she wanted to make a difference in the lives of others who had gone through similar if not worse circumstances than she had.
Now, graduating with a bachelor’s degree has brought her closer to one day opening her own group home and creating a nonprofit organization.
“It will support youth, veterans, and the displaced in the metro Jackson area. I want to create shelter for them and be a voice for them,” she said.
For now, she is focusing on applying to JSU’s graduate program and studying to become a licensed social worker.
“I thank JSU for maturing me and giving me a better outlook on life and letting me know there is success in the struggle.”
‘Oh, she’s a doctor.’
If the phrase “making a difference” were a person, Mauda Monger could possibly be it. As chief operations officer for My Brother’s Keeper, a private nonprofit whose mission is to reduce health disparities throughout the United States, Monger works with 19 jurisdictions across the South, building the capacity for HIV testing, treatment and prevention.
On Dec. 6, she added an executive Ph.D. in education leadership from JSU to her resume, and she said the thought almost brings tears to her eyes.“It was the most amazing feeling. I’m a first-generation college student, and making it to getting my Ph.D. in front of my entire family was huge. It was amazing. It still feels surreal,” she shared.
Monger said one reason she chose JSU’s executive Ph.D. program is because her colleagues gave it great reviews. She also shared that she was attracted to the cohort model and the way it was structured.
“What is different about this model is not only are you attending class together in a cohort but from the moment you start they are building this cohort,” she said. “You stay at the same hotels as these people. You are in study groups with these people.”
The Lanier High School graduate explained that it’s more than building relationships with classmates, but it’s about building relationships for future collaborations.
“It is great networking. These people come from all over the world and they’re doing various things. It’s not just an association. You develop friendships,” she said.
Monger, 42, has worked in HIV education for about 15 years, spending 10 years at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. She started at My Brother’s Keeper this year. Additionally, she has a consulting business called MLM Center for Health Education and Equity, where she educates others on everything from mental health to trauma.
“You have to get clients from a place of standstill to a place of movement for the betterment of their health,” said Monger, who also heads the “She Project,” an organization she started in 2013 that centers on women empowerment.
Here, she caters to the holistic well-being of ninth- and 10th-grade girls with an emphasis on health by helping them navigate through high school and life, while grooming them for leadership. Many of the teens also go on to become first-generation college students.
Monger’s longtime dream is to open an all-black girl’s school with a health component that educates young ladies from k-12. “Research shows a correlation between health and higher education outcomes,” she explained.
After graduating high school in 1994, Monger attended Tougaloo College, where she received a bachelor’s in economics and business administration. She then received a master’s in public health from JSU in 2007.
Having several irons in the fire, Monger admitted that the most strenuous part of getting a Ph.D. was trying to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Although school made it difficult for her to find time and energy for her mentees, Monger credits them as partial motivation for pursuing her Ph.D. She wanted them to see the “sky is the limit” and if she could do it, so could they.
“I’m working with these young ladies who have never seen someone up close that they can put their hands on and say, ‘Oh, she’s a doctor.’ And now they can.”
To learn more about Monger’s health advocacy and mentorship program, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 601.983.7852