This year’s summer commencement will be one for FAMU’S history books as Juanita Isom, 69, will receive her Master’s degree in history. Isom was a registered nurse for 35 years before she retired. Isom enjoyed her retirement for nine years before returning to school.
“I wanted to do something other than just sit home every day,” Isom said.
Isom graduated from Middleton High School in Tampa in 1959. In 1960, she moved to New Orleans with her husband David Isom and four children. For over twenty years, Isom worked 12-16 hour shifts every day to put her children through school.
“I never lost my thirst for knowledge,” Isom said.
Her daughter convinced Isom to return to school and receive her bachelor’s degree, and promised to embark on the journey with her. In August of 2008, Isom and her daughter Lisa enrolled at Southern University. However, tragedy struck the Isom family on Oct. 1, 2008.
Isom’s granddaughter found Lisa dead. She was 46 years old.
Isom managed to maintain the highest GPA in her department despite the loss of her daughter. On the eve of her graduation, Isom learned that she would have to undergo cardio bypass surgery. Determined to earn her degree, Isom received her bachelor’s and completed the surgery. Two weeks later, Isom travelled to Tallahassee to meet with Chanta Haywood, former dean of graduate studies.
” I find it so funny because my youngest child, who I drove to college, brought me down here to FAMU to start my master’s program,” Isom said.
From the first day of class, it was clear that Isom was no ordinary woman. Fellow classmate Tanisha Matthews remembers her first encounter with Isom.
“You would never think that she was a 69-year-old woman; she so vivacious and spirited,” Matthews said.
Matthews said Isom helped her though her roughest times in their master’s program.
“I was really stressed out and was on the verge of tears,” Matthews said. “Then one day she came to me and told me to be strong and to not show my weakness.”
In the two semesters Isom has studied on FAMU’s campus, she has met and impacted countless students and faculty. One memorable encounter was with Murell Dawson, director and curator of the Black Archives Research Center and Museum.
“One day she came in looking for help and came back every day since then,” Dawson said. “One thing I’d really want people to know is that she is a nurturer, especially to her classmates.”
Isom was recently inducted into the history Honors Society; after she leaves FAMU, Isom plans to go into archival and museum management.
“I knew there weren’t many people my age going back to school,” Isom said. “I don’t settle and I don’t stress. When I set my mind to it I finish it.”