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Clarissa Nickerson

Roosevelt University online student overcomes challenges of childhood to obtain Bachelor of Professional Studies degree

Posted: 12/13/2012
A 26-year-old mother of four who has spent much of her life as a ward of the state in the Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington, Ill., areas, will take the next step in her journey to becoming a lawyer when she graduates from Roosevelt University on Dec. 14.

Clarissa Nickerson, who had a troubled childhood moving from foster home to foster home, and a large part of her teenaged and young-adult years raising children, will receive a bachelor’s degree after 10 years of studying at three different colleges.

“This will be a major accomplishment for me and I want people to know that no matter where you come from, you can be successful if you put your mind to it,” said Nickerson, who was first removed from her family home beginning at six months of age and later was removed permanently at the age of eight. She remained in the system until she turned 21.

After getting pregnant at 15, Nickerson dropped out of school and pursued a GED, which she received in 2003.  She then took classes intermittently beginning in 2005 at Parkland College in Champaign and in 2008 at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. While working full time, she enrolled in 2010 in Roosevelt’s online Bachelor of Professional Studies program.

Donnette Noble, an assistant professor of organizational leadership at Roosevelt and one of Nickerson’s instructors, said it took several stops and starts but that Nickerson showed determination and drive in completing the University adult, fast-track Bachelor’s in Professional Studies (BPS) degree.
“I remember telling her in one of our online chats to ‘buck up,’” said Noble, who gave the advice when Nickerson at one point began falling behind due to a heavy load of other duties including a full-time job and caring for her kids. “She thanked me and told me about the uphill battle she’d been facing,” recalled Noble.

“She had every reason to give up, but instead she produced some really incredible work,” said Noble. “I’m just thrilled she stuck with it and I see a bright future ahead for her.”

Nickerson has been the recipient of the William P. Meyers Education Scholarship through Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana. The scholarship is provided by the owner of 14 Arby’s restaurants in central Illinois who was a resident, himself, of a children’s home as a boy. With it, Nickerson was able to get a paid internship in a law office in Urbana, starting her on her career path to becoming a lawyer.
“It was a pivotal point in her life and we began to see that she was really becoming motivated to achieve more with her life,” said Angela Bertauski-Pierce.  The Cunningham Children’s Home case worker said Nickerson’s accomplishments have been “truly exceptional.”

“She is in the minority of cases we see in which wards facing the kinds of situations she was in exhibited the kind of maturity, determination and follow through that it takes to get through college,” said Bertauski-Pierce. At Cunningham, Nickerson was able to enroll in a number of transitional and independent-living programs that enabled her to work and finish school while caring for four children who are now ages 10, 7, 6 and 10-months old.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is set a positive example for my kids, and this college degree is an important step,” said Nickerson, who will attend graduation with her children and Cunningham Children’s Home supporters at 10 a.m. Dec. 14 in the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago.

After her paid internship at the Urbana law firm, Nickerson landed a job as a secretary in a law office in Champaign, She also recently moved up into a new job as a paralegal in Clayton, Mo, and is planning on entering a graduate legal studies program at Webster University in St. Louis in January 2013. She also plans to go on to law school.
John “Jack” De La Mar, the now-retired Champaign County Juvenile Court judge who handled Nickerson’s state-ward case and, at her request, later became her guardian ad litem through Champaign County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) has vowed to help Nickerson achieve her future goals.

“The law has been a pretty powerful part of Clarissa’s life,” said De La Mar, who first met Nickerson at 12 years of age in a Champaign County juvenile courtroom. “I’m delighted she’s interested in a legal career and I know she can reach that goal,” said De La Mar, who plans to write Nickerson letters of recommendation.

“I learned a long time ago not to predict which kids in the system will fail and which will succeed,” added De La Mar. “At the same time, I’d say that Clarissa is one of those rare cases where we’ve seen this kind of success coming out of the child welfare system. She gives us hope and inspiration,” he said.

For more information, contact Laura Janota at Roosevelt University at 312-341-3511 or or Cloydia Hill Larimore at Cunningham Children’s Home at 217-337-9005 or