Sandi Hagans-Morris knows what it's like to be a teenage mother: She had three children before the end of her senior year in high school. Two months before graduation, she dropped out of Indian River High School.
"I needed to focus on being the best mom I could be," she said. Too much of her time in the classroom was spent on worrying about her son and two daughters – getting them off to day care in the morning and making sure they were picked up in the afternoon were her top concerns.
Thirty-three years later, Hagans-Morris said she still wonders what it would have felt like to walk with the class of 1984. "Graduation night was hard because I knew my friends were walking, and I wasn't," she said.
She also remembers how some classmates ridiculed her.
"They said I was going to be an old, fat lady on welfare," she said.
"I was determined to not be the person they said I would be."
Staying home with her three young children, Hagans-Morris said, she did go on welfare to make ends meet. She also had three more children, a son and twin boys.
"I used to be embarrassed to tell people my age that I had my first baby when I was 14. But I think it's important to share that information. It was part of the journey that got me where I am now. I was a good student, but I made bad choices," she said.
Still, Hagans-Morris said she enjoyed her years as a stay-at-home mom. She said she loved being there for all her children's firsts – first word, first step, first tooth. She would see her children off on the school bus and be waiting when they came home. In between were baseball, softball, football and basketball practice, depending on the season. "They kept me busy over the years, but I wouldn't change it for the world," she said.
When her two youngest entered kindergarten, Hagans-Morris went back to school. It took her six years to earn an associate degree from Delaware Technical Community College, but she discovered a love of learning that continues today. She rolled her two-year degree in human services into a bachelor's degree in behavioral science from Wilmington University and then a master's degree in community counseling.
Proving her critical classmates wrong, she never got fat, and she did not stay on welfare.
In January 2017, Hagans-Morris earned a doctorate from Wilmington University in organizational leadership.
"Getting my doctorate was all about seeing if I could do it," she said. "It was a challenge. So many times I thought, 'What the heck did I get into?'"
She thanks her mother for encouraging her to follow her studies, and to be a good mom. "My mom said you had these babies, so you're going to raise them. She didn't give me an easy route. I've tried to teach the same method to my children," she said.
Hagans-Morris brought of photo of her late mother and father to the ceremony. Her mother died 20 days before she graduated.
Today, Hagans-Morris passes on lessons she learned from her mother to people seeking help at First State Community Action Agency. "Education is key if you want to live a productive lifestyle," she said.
Fifteen years ago, she began work at the Georgetown facility, helping others who were once like herself. She has a sense of calm and poise when she talks about her work.
"I tell them I used to sit on the other side of the door just like you. I know what it feels like," she said.
But through sheer determination and grit, Hagans-Morris perservered, and she tells others they can, too.
Never one to stay still for long, Hagans-Morris is enjoying life as a newlywed and is pursuing certification as a counselor. And with a confidence she's earned in her 51 years, she is happy with her life.
"These experiences are what made me," she said.