Against All Odds: A Story of Tenacity, Hard Work, and Higher Education

Kenya Hicks, Tashea Stanley-Dixon, Khadija Darr, and Kenji Kuykendall grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, about 40 miles north of Chicago. They have all been close friends since they were 12 years old. All four girls became pregnant while in high school and all four gave birth to sons. All four fathers abandoned the teenagers before they gave birth. All four girls were obliged to go on welfare temporarily so that they could provide for their children. Kenya and Khadija dropped out of high school. One might have bet these four teenagers were doomed to a life of poverty in single-parent homes. If you took that bet, you would have lost.

The four teenagers made a pact to support each other and succeed despite the fact that the odds were against them. Through education and hard work, they were determined to give their children a better life. All four went back to school, worked when they were not in school, and received help and support from friends, family, and each other.

Today all four women are in their 30s. They all have graduated from college. By the end of next year, all four will have MBA degrees.

Kenya Hicks was supported by her parents, grandmother, sister, and friends as she completed an associate’s degree at Robert Morris University and a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College in Missouri. It took her 12 years to complete college. She is currently pursuing an MBA at the Keller Graduate School of Management. She is in the process of starting up a home service agency. Hicks states, “We inspired and supported each other relentlessly to finish college no matter what challenges we faced so we could change the direction of our journey and rewrite our destiny.”

Tashea Stanley-Dixon enrolled in a community college and worked at night calling homeowners who were delinquent in their mortgage payments. It took her eight years but she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Columbia College. She too, is enrolled in the MBA program at the Keller Graduate School of Management. She is now a certified paralegal.

Khadija Darr earned an associate’s degree at Robert Morris University and a bachelor’s degree at Columbia College. Almost 90 percent of her course work was completed online. She is currently enrolled in the MBA program with a concentration in accounting at Concordia University in Chicago. She currently operates her own T-shirt company and has a tax preparation business. She plans to become a certified public accountant.

While working various jobs and taking care of her son, Kenji Kuykendall attended a community college part time over an eight year period and earned her associate’s degree with honors from the College of Lake County. She then went on to complete her bachelor’s degree in 2008 with a specialization in workforce education development  from Southern Illinois University. She graduated magna cum laude. Currently Kenji attends Lake Forest Graduate School of Management and  will earn a MBA with a specialization in organizational behavior in January. It was a 14-year journey to complete her education. She now is works in human resources for a major pharmaceutical company in Chicago with aspirations of becoming a human resources executive officer. She lives by the motto, “Hard work does pay off.” She could not have achieved her goals without the support of her family and friends.

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  1. I want to congratulate Kenya Hicks, Tashea Stanley-Dixon, Khadija Darr, and Kenji Kuykendall for their extra-ordinary achievements against the odds!

    Let me add to these names, Dianne Delsol. She has just graduated from Kaplan university with a Master’s degree in Legal Studies, at the top of her class, with a (4.0) GPA!

    What makes this achievement remarkable is that Dianne is legally blind! I was her academic coach and mentor for 18 months. It took Dianne two years and eleven months. These were months of much frustration, anger, sweat, tears, pain, disappointments, and finally, joy! Success is sweet!

    Dianne’s major strengths are her rock-like determination, tireless work ethic, and fierce pursuit of the top grade in all her assignments. In addition, Dianne has strong writing skills, and loves to teach, coach and mentor.

    Dianne has a first degree in Political Science from South Carolina State College. She is a certified Family Court Mediator and Adjudicator.

    • Hi Stephen! Would it be possible to email me contact info for Dianne? I am trying to get in touch with these women to submit their stories to be published in a book called Operation Graduate: Inspiring Stories from Students Who Beat the Odds. It will be available online and send to student counseling centers to help other struggling students. Please reply and let me know! Thanks.

  2. Kenji Kuykendall is my older cousin. I grew up around these ladies and watched them beat the odds of single parenthood. I’m EXTREMELY proud of all of these ladies because they lay the foundation that it can be done. I have followed this same path because I have women like these ladies in my life that set the example. Congrats to you all and thanks for paving the way.

  3. I would like to say that I went to school with these ladies, and I commend them for the accomplishing so much with so any obstacles!

  4. Humbled and grateful for the opportunity to tell a piece of our story!

    It is my prayer that our story will encourage someone with similar circumstances to keep pressing forward. Don’t give up no matter how difficult or long the journey takes. Best regards, Tashea

  5. “But God!” My young educated African American Sistas, words cannot express how proud I am of you. Although I do not know you personally, you have touched me. I am a principal at an urban high school, as I type this reply, I am looking out of my office window at three pregnant young ladies on my campus. I am going to print this article and share it with them. They need to know the hand they have been dealt does not have to define their future. It is my prayer that you share your story (ministry) with young ladies across this country. May all your dreams and hopes for brighter tomorrows be manifested in your lives. I pray the God will continue to bless you and your families. Always remember, “But God!”

    • Francene, as a principal you know about the power of role models. After all, you and the teachers in your school are positive role models.

      The power of a role model to influence others depends upon many interacting variables. Gender and race are two factors that influence attitudes and behaviors, whether positively or negatively.

      Research show that females are more powerful role models for other females, and males for males. Likewise, African-Americans are more powerful role models for other African-Americans. When gender and race combine the impact of the two is more powerful!

      If it was possible for Kenya Hicks, Tashea Stanley-Dixon, Khadija Darr, and Kenji Kuykendall to run workshops and seminars in your school, and urban schools across this nation, I have no doubt that they would have a major impact on the attitudes and behaviors of girls, and boys, alike.

  6. What an absolutely inspiring article! I get so tired of reading and hearing about how terrible our children are doing. Its nice for a change to read something uplifting. May God continue to bless each and everyone of you!

  7. The four of you are remarkable women. You have beat the odds. You are wonderful examples for your children, family, and each of you have become role models to other women within your community.

  8. As a former teacher and higher ed financial aid professional, I had the opportunity to work with many young people facing huge obstacles. It was so easy for them to lose their way or take the easy way out. These young ladies have proven that with faith, family and their focus on a positive vision, they are totally Women of Quality. Big!Big!Big!

    • Exter, you will agree that these young ladies are in one accord in their experiences, mind, soul, and spirit. They have the unity and power to do whatever they want to do. If they want to be millionaires there is absolutely nothing and no one that can stop them. That’s the secret of their success.

  9. These are terrific American success stories. I am indebted to Melody Fuller for knowledge of these stories. As a former travel editor of a major newspaper, I am well aware of the difficulties suffered by many would-be students, especially from minority groups and especially in third-world countries. If we want the United States to continue to be a force for good in the world, we MUST each make the most of her opportunities. You women are doing that and you will help change the world and, certainly, your own worlds. CONGRATULATIONS!

    • Georginia, the story of these four young ladies is an inspiration for females as well as males. Seventeen percent of children in America are raised in male-headed single-parent households.

      Over two-thirds of black children in America, the Caribbean and Britain are born and raised in single-parent households.

      It is absolutely important that the story of Kenya Hicks, Tashea Stanley-Dixon, Khadija Darr, and Kenji Kuykendall is shared and reproduced millions of times locally, nationally, and internationally.

  10. I am very gratified and pleased to actually learn about the path which these young women took in order to achieve success as I personally know of or have been acquainted with their families. My husband, Julian and I have watched some of these young women grow from childhood to maturity, and have been friends with either their Grandparents, parents, or siblings for the past 30 or more years. It is amazing that they continued to persevere with the help of family, friends, college counselors, and faculty advisors and administrative assistance. Having grown up, attended Northern IL University and taught in Waukegan Public Schools for 40 years, I am so very proud to know of the many successes of our young people as opposed to the failures which most frequently are publicized.
    Molly M. Penny

  11. Congratulations ladies!! You are an inspiration to your families, communities and other young women…

    I found this article after reading today’s NYT’s article on black college graduation rates and stumbling upon JBHE’s 2007 article. My heart is full of joy at your tenacity, perseverance, and accomplishments…

    Artise Hardy

  12. I am so full of joy upon stumbling on this article about these four great inspirational women. Y’all defied all odds and came out victorious. I am astoundingly grateful that you did not give up on your dreams. Keep winning.

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