'She never gave up'
First-generation student is fighting for her family, for her future
Bittersweet smiles filled the lounge in Medilodge of Mount Pleasant, a local nursing home, as first-generation student MoniQue “Mo” Miller accepted her diploma from Central Michigan University President Bob Davies. An intimate audience made of professors, colleagues and family filled the silence with clapping and cheers.
Feet away on her right, Mo’s mom, Diane Miller, beamed with pure euphoria.
Mo’s non-traditional graduation ceremony took place on April 14, about 10 months before her official December 2023 commencement, to ensure Diane, who is currently in end-stage hospice care, could witness her daughter’s greatest achievement so far.
“Getting my diploma … means my mom’s getting her diploma too,” Mo said.
Mo is the first generation in her family working to obtain a college degree but with multiple campus jobs and a full-time course load, the soon-to-be graduate is fighting a battle that is oftentimes hidden by her work ethic.
Despite the uncertainty and emotional toll losing her only parent takes on Mo every day, she said she is doing it all for her mom.
“For me to cross that stage, it’s like she’s crossing it with me,” she said.
Diane said it means a lot to see her daughter accomplish her goals.
“I’m glad she was determined and persistent in reaching her goal. And that in spite of complications that she ran into, she never gave up,” Diane said. “I’m just thankful that she kept fighting.”
‘My childhood was pretty much gone after 7’
Mo said she had to grow up at a very young age after her mom first became ill. Mo was around seven years old when Diane had her first major medical scare — kidney failure.
“It’s been nothing but fear ever since I was a kid,” Mo said. “Ever since then I just kind of had to step up to help her out.”
Diane lost three children, leaving Mo and her younger brother as the only living kin. At less than 10 years old, Mo became the oldest sibling in the house.
“I kind of had to raise my brother,” she said.
Mo said she felt resentment toward her brother and eventually, her mom too, which she worked through in therapy.
“I didn’t have my dad and then the only other parent I had is sick and I’m taking care of them, so I didn’t have a normal childhood experience … I know no person in their right mind would wish to be sick, but it still was like, ‘Dang it sucks to have to be in this experience,’” she said. “I never felt necessarily safe or protected, which is another reason why I think I also felt resentment to not feel that protection or normalcy.”
Fighting for her mom
In 2021 — at the age of 23 — Mo became her mom’s legal guardian.
“No one’s going to fight for my mom like I will,” she said. “So, I said yes.”
In that role, she attends her mom’s doctor visits and makes all of her medical decisions. The only choice she has not made, she said, was her mom being put in hospice because “either way (the doctors) felt like she would pass.”
Mo visits her mom at least once each week but said it can be hard sometimes.
“Sometimes she imagines things that aren’t real,” she said. “She imagines real memories. Sometimes she’ll relive my rape story and she’ll call me frantic and telling me it’s happening to me. … So, I have to relive that … whenever she relives it.
Mo said she has had to work through a lot of guilt for, at times, not wanting to visit or talk to her mom. But it does not stop her from picking up the phone every time she gets a call.
“Every time they call me for her, my heart drops,” she said. “Every single time, because I think they’re telling me, ‘this is it.’
“I am exhausted the majority of the time, thinking about how things are going to end up.”
Mo grew up in Chicago’s “church life” — her mom was a choir director, and her grandfather and uncles were pastors — but Mo said she questions her religious beliefs because of her mom’s life experience.
A lifetime of love and support
Diane has battled illness for most of Mo’s life, but nonetheless has been her daughter’s biggest cheerleader through all her ups and downs. Mo said Diane is supportive of her in ways her mom did not have growing up.
“She’s sacrificed a lot to get me to where I am,” she said. “She’s always believed in every idea I’ve ever had, supported every decision I’ve ever made and been proud of me.”
During this hard time in Mo’s life, she said she has received ample support from loved ones, including her grandma, cousin, social work professors and her sorority family, namely her “daughter” Michyah Jones.
One thing she has noticed, though, is people who are unaware of what she is dealing with do not often enough extend grace.
“You never know what people are going through and what’s going to be their final straw,” she said. “My own mental health is not good because of everything I endure with my mom and to experience people not being supportive does not make it any better.”
Mo said her lived experiences have shaped her into the person she is today — a person that wants to make it better for others.
“Pain has been such a frequency in my life, I knew I always wanted to give back and make people smile,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a statistic, I didn’t want to be a stereotype; I wanted to make my mom proud.”
As a result, Mo has been extremely involved in her time at CMU. She has worked in a variety of roles with the following organizations, departments and offices:
• CMU IMPACT
• Women’s Initiative of Strength Hope
• Anti-Racism Committee
• Mental Health Alliance
• Feminist Leaders on Campus
• Student Social Work Association
• Sigma Lambda Gamma National Sorority Inc.
• Office of Institutional Diversity Equity and Inclusion
• Office of LGBTQIA
• Gender Equity Programs
• McNairs Scholar Program
• Black Inclusion Rights Association
• Organization of Black Leaders
• Organization for Black Unity Fashion Show
• Threads Fashion Show
• MASS Office
Mo was recently awarded a McNair Scholarship, a federally funded program through the U.S. Department of Education created to support low-income, first-generation or underrepresented college students on their path to earning a Ph.D., according to Central Michigan University’s website.
She said the program offers her support and guidance as she applies to graduate schools, something she did not have when first applying to college.
“I had no support in undergrad,” she said. “Even though my mom tried to be there as much as possible, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) confused us every year.
“(McNair) just gives you that support so that way when you go to grad school, you know how to make connections, you know how to look for fellowships or GA-ships, different things like that,” she continued. “It affords me opportunities to network, as well as have mentors.”
This summer, Mo studied ways to provide support for minorities seeking job opportunities.
“A lot of times being in a rural area like this, you find people that are close-minded, or they read an article on Twitter and think that was their activism or wokeness,” she said. “So, now we’re basically just trying to find a way to support interns when they’re in the field.”
Mo plans to graduate in December with a Bachelor of Social Work and double minor in youth studies and psychology.
“That’s why I’m in this field, to be the change I want to see,” she said.
After, she will work toward a Master of Social Work and someday, she aims to earn a Ph.D. in social work or public policy.
“I’m striving to be Dr. Mo,” she said.
Long-term, she is interested in studying the experiences of Black and brown LGBTQ people.
“It became more of a thing, as I had cousins who would come out and family members who would disown them,” she said.
These experiences have fueled her to want to do something about injustices she sees in Black and brown LGBT communities, she said.
“If you see something in this world that you could fix, why wouldn’t you try?” she said.