Motivating Monday: Denise Washington, From Poverty to Ph.D

by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region

Denise Washington and daughter Malika

Story Provided by Kathy Jessup

Denise Washington seemed destined to be a poster woman for young, single mothers aspiring to little more than a minimum-wage existence.

Forty years ago, Washington was offered a college scholarship to pursue a degree in accounting at Western Michigan University and had a promising internship lined up.  But with a semester left before her high school graduation, she became pregnant and all that vanished.

She gave birth to a daughter.  Mother and daughter were separated some nights when Washington was homeless; she slept alone in her car after arranging for a friend or relative to shelter her baby.

As life hit rock bottom, the Battle Creek woman recognized education was her lifeline out of poverty.

Today, Denise Washington has a Ph.D.  She credits people at United Way with supporting and believing in her even before she believed in herself.

“They saw what I didn’t see in myself,” Washington said.  “They believed in me.  I started sitting on an (United Way of Greater Battle Creek) ad hoc committee at a time in my life that I didn’t really feel worthy to be there.  I didn’t have long title extensions behind my name.”

A marriage to the baby’s father failed after 18 months. Washington enlisted in the military to improve her lot.  She married again and had another child while in the Army.  But that marriage failed, too.

She was discharged after serving eight years, returning to Battle Creek with her children.

“I had three small kids, living on less than $20,000 a year and not getting child support,” she said.  “We lived off $20 a week for food, relying on hot dogs, bologna and buy-one-get-one-frees.”

Washington says a vivid dream was her turning point.  She saw herself falling into a deep pit just before hitting the bottom.

“God told me, ‘Turn around or the next time I’m going to let you fall.’  I just remember having feelings of being stupid and never amounting to anything.”

Approaching age 39 and seven months pregnant, she enrolled in her first college accounting class.

“I got an A and from then on I told myself I could do anything.  I had small kids, I was taking two to three classes a semester and working two or three jobs.  I was so driven; I don’t know how I did it.”

She earned an associate degree in accounting from KCC, then went on to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Sienna Heights University. Recently she received her doctorate in business from University of Phoenix

Through it all, United Way was there with encouragement, showing faith in her when her own sometimes waned.  Washington said United Way also allowed her to apply her classroom learning in real-world challenges.

Today at 58, the woman who once averaged two hours of sleep each night is retired from the City of Battle Creek.  But she still has many irons in the fire.

Washington wants to teach, both as an academic in accounting and personally as someone who knows what can be accomplished with hard work, determination and positive support.

“I want to write a book to help others who are thinking about pursuing education.  I would like to reach young, single-parent moms who don’t have a high school diploma or job skills and get no income from their child’s father.  I was there and I was told I would never amount to anything.  I was there and I want to reach out to them and tell them ‘Don’t let anybody stop you from your dream.’”

That’s what Denise Washington said United Way gave her.

“I never wanted anyone to give me anything, just show me the way so I could move on,” she explained.  “United Way promotes self sufficiency and independence.  I’ve seen the impact of what United Way does, and I want to be a part of it.”