Skip navigation

True Grit: Brashears Earned Degree from USM While Juggling Family and Work Commitments, Long Commutes

Tue, 12/20/2022 - 04:55pm | By: David Tisdale

Billie Jean Brashears Never give up, for this is just the place and time that the tide will turn. - Harriet Beecher Stowe

There are 24 hours in a day, and Billie Jean Brashears never wasted a minute of any of them enroute to getting her degree at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), graduating this fall following a school-work-life balancing act comparable to the exploits of famed tightrope walker Charles Blondin.

The Gulfport, Mississippi native and 2001 graduate of Gulfport High School waited later in life to attend college, after beginning a family and co-founding her own clothing and beauty products business. She started first in pursuit of an associate’s degree at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC) in the fall of 2017.

A longtime lover of “anything science,” her parents likely planted the seed for her academic pursuits. “As a young girl I planted a garden with my dad, and my neighbor would teach me about the plants and what they do,” she said. “My mom would buy me toy microscopes, and any kind of hands-on learning toys I loved, and so being an only child, you learn to do things to entertain yourself, and that is where it started.” 

With those experiences serving as inspiration, after finishing her studies at MGCCC Brashears transferred to USM where she began pursuit of a major in chemistry, with an emphasis in biochemistry. At 39, Brashears would introduce herself as “the oldie but goodie” to her classmates, and she usually fit right in.

But on more than one occasion, Brashears questioned that decision. Raising three children, one with a disability, while also running a small business – all while commuting more than an hour on some days to get to class - triggered doubts along the way.

“There were plenty of times I wondered If what I was doing was the right decision for my family,” Brashears said. “I wondered if I was too old to be doing this, and was it worth my time?  Would I be able to ‘mom’ my days as a mother to three kids aged 11, 17, and my 21-year-old with Down Syndrome - and still be a college student?

“Then, Covid played a big role for everyone at school, with half classes and half online, moving to wearing masks, and when things were starting to look up, my dad passed away during the spring semester of 2021,” she further noted. “It was painful, but I know he would have wanted me to keep going, so I did, but I had the compassion of my professors and peers to get me through it.”

The encouragement of friends, family and teachers consistently reminded her they were proud of what she was doing and cheered her on to that end. “There were weekends and events I had to miss out on to study, or days where I had to be in class and couldn’t attend a function, they understood the sacrifice and loved me regardless,” she said. “Love, compassion, and perseverance were my lights on this journey.”

Brashears praised important educators who opened doors of opportunity for her along the way, including at MGCCC where she cited chemistry/organic chemistry professor Dr. David Rankins (“A great professor who helped me see the potential in myself”) and at USM, Senior Lab Coordinator and Instrumentation Manager Tina Masterson (“Our school mom, she got to hear it all and in the beauty of it patiently listened, encouraged, and willed us to hang in there”) and USM Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Dr. Julie Pigza (“A woman of science, and a brilliant one she is”).

Dr. Pigza met Brashears very early in her transition from MGCCC to USM, as Brashears was encouraged by Dr. Rankin to reach out to her. After connecting, she joined Dr. Pigza’s research group and became one of her advisees.

“Billie Jean is always a positive presence, whether it be in the classroom or the research lab, and she takes on all her roles with enthusiasm and grace,” Dr. Pigza said. “She took four classes with me, three being upper-level chemistry electives, two of which started at 8 a.m. She managed to get her children ready for school each morning and then commute from Biloxi and be on time for class.

“She took it all in stride and approached life as a learning experience, exemplifying the definition of grit and determination that represents our unique student population at USM.”

Brashears will reprise her high-wire act in the fall of 2023, when she goes back to USM for her master’s degree in medical laboratory science. It appears now that in never giving up, she is reaping the rewards.

“I finally told myself I deserved the chance to finish something I started,” she concluded. “The work life-balance was indeed a challenge, but reminiscing now on the path I chose, I have no regrets. I’ve been fortunate to have family supporting me, understanding what I was doing wasn’t only for myself but in the end, for all of us.”