At 15 years old, Annette McMullen was working in Thomson cafeteria at Winthrop University. Twenty-five years later, she’s graduating.
“It’s very surreal for me and my family,” she said. “I never thought I would be able to attend Winthrop University. Now I’m graduating.”
McMullen, 39, is joining her classmates in the Dec. 17 ceremony, where she will receive a Bachelor’s degree in biology.
McMullen was born and raised in Rock Hill by her grandmother.
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She became a fulltime caregiver at the age of 20 when her grandmother, a textile worker, fell ill. That meant McMullen could not go to school, she had to work full time.
She later married and had a son, Tristan, now 16 and a sophomore at Rock Hill High School.
“Life happened,” McMullen said.
McMullen was chosen as a scholarship recipient from ANSWER, a nonprofit based in Charlotte that provides financial and professional support to Charlotte region mothers with school-age children.
“We look for women that have faced challenges but have what it takes to overcome them,” said Susan Andersen, who founded the program.
McMullen has juggled her time as a mother, a wife and student. She credits her success to her husband, Antonio, and Tristan.
“Wearing a lot of different hats at once, you have to manage your time,” she said. “There is no way possible I could even attempt going through this without having their support.”
Getting here also took much prayer, McMullen said. She’s a practicing Muslim who prays five times a day.
“Without devotion to God, everything else would fall apart,” she said.
McMullen said many Muslim women are going for their education.
“The Quran says for women to be educated,” she said. “I’m just joining a widening group. It’s amazing.”
McMullen hopes to continue her education at the Carolinas College of Health Care Sciences medical laboratory science program in Charlotte.
“Annette is sharp and very articulate, especially in the area of science,” Andersen said. “It’s awesome to see a woman succeed as she has done with her academics.”
McMullen said her grandmother’s illness inspired her to go into health care.
“The first time I looked into a miscroscope, I was a gonner,” she said. “I knew where I wanted to go.”
McMullen is hoping her path inspires other girls and women to go into science, health and technology fields.
“It’s still a male-dominated field and we need that strong female presence,” she said. “We need to stop telling (girls) what they can’t do and tell them what they can do.”
Women, especially mothers, also have to make time for what they want, she said.
“Once we take on those hats, we want to give it our all,” McMullen said. “But we still deserve to go back to school and graduate.”
The ANSWER program empowers women to do just that through networking opportunities, resume building and a mentors program providing emotional and professional support, Andersen said.
“It really does help to be able to have that sounding board,” McMullen said. “The comaraderie of the program helps us stay in, stay committed and go through all the grunt work to get the undergrad out of the way and go further. It’s invaluable.”
McMullen’s son had his clothes ready early for the ceremony, where he and his did will cheer for McMullen.
“He’s just as exicted as I am,” she said. “Your kids absorb everything and you want to set the best example for them.”
McMullen is setting that example by walking across the stage.
“Statistically speaking, I’m not supposed to graduate from Winthrop University or from high school,” she said. “But I made it and I’m here.”
This year’s graduates
See Winthrop’s list of December graduates on page 5A
Applications are now being accepted for the 2017-18 school year. To apply, visit answerscholarship.org.