Communication graduate Sonja Thompson perseveres through challenges, loss to earn degree

Sonja Thompson

Sonja Thompson is set to earn her bachelor’s degree in communication and has plans to pursue a master’s degree before going into broadcast journalism. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Sonja Thompson’s voice started to quiver while describing her feelings as she thought about next Saturday’s commencement ceremonies, being held virtually at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

She admitted to being a little sad she won’t be making the physical walk across the stage in a Mark Twain Athletic Center packed with family and friends there to support her and her fellow graduates.

But that wasn’t what had Thompson pausing to catch her breath. She’d been asked to look ahead, to try to imagine the moment when her name and picture will flash across the screen among the others earning degrees in communication and media. But Thompson’s mind started racing backward.

It covered so much of the previous 11 years – the academic struggles she had the first time she enrolled in college, the debt she had to pay off to be able to return to school, working full-time while attending classes at St. Louis Community College and later UMSL, the birth of her son, the loss of her mother last fall, getting coronavirus and now finishing her studies while monitoring her son’s learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s definitely been a crazy journey for me on top of this global health crisis we all are facing,” Thompson said. “My family is elated. When discussing graduation, we get very emotional, knowing the road I’ve traveled thus far.

“I never gave up, never let my failure hinder me either. Actually, I allowed them to be my driving force. Now I’m here, celebrating this huge accomplishment with glee. I hope my story inspires others to never give up, no matter what hardships life hands you.”

Thompson really had no idea what she wanted to do with her life when she graduated from University City High School in 2009. She enrolled at Missouri Baptist University because that’s where some of her friends were going.

She wasn’t serious enough about her coursework, and her grades reflected it. Her GPA dropped low enough that she lost her scholarship and couldn’t afford to continue.

Thompson spent the next several years without a clear direction before deciding to enroll at St. Louis Community College. The birth of her son, Nicholas, now 5, was among the things that refocused her on completing her education.

But to get her transcripts from Missouri Baptist, she had to work to pay off money she still owed.

Thompson, who works in patient care at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, returned to school at the Forest Park campus but eventually moved to Florissant Valley and earned her associate degree.

“After racking up loans, I was like, ‘I need to go to a college that’s affordable and close to the area,’” Thompson said of her thought process as she planned her next move.

UMSL wound up being that choice. Her brother, John Carter, was at the time working toward a degree in degree in criminology and criminal justice. He graduated in 2018. Carter offered positive reviews of his own experience at the university and the resources it offered its students.

Thompson’s taken advantage of many of those – from scholarship opportunities to assistance in the tutoring center. Her son attended daycare several semesters at the University Child Development Center on campus.

She’s also seen firsthand UMSL’s caring faculty, with no better example than Associate Teaching Professor Leigh Heisel who helped provide comfort and support as her mother’s health was declining last fall with Thompson enrolled in her course, “Communication in the Organization.”

“Her pain was evident and palpable,” Heisel said. “It was heartbreaking and inspiring to watch her soldier on with composure and grace despite all that life was throwing at her. We talked teacher-to-student, mother-to-mother, and daughter-to-daughter.”

Heisel is the one who ultimately helped convince her to take advantage of UMSL’s Counseling Services as she dealt with grief from her mother’s passing.

“She also encouraged me to just never give up,” Thompson said. “‘You’re going to make it through this.’ She always gave me spiritual advice, and I really appreciate her.”

The past year brought a whole new set of challenges with Thompson adapting to remote learning and helping her son do the same as he started kindergarten this fall. She had to excuse herself momentarily from a recent interview so she could speak with his teacher about one of his assignments.

But she’s continued to push forward, maintaining a GPA above 3.0 throughout her time at UMSL.

Thompson, who plans to pursue a master’s degree, would like to go into broadcast journalism. She’s become a bit of a news junkie, regularly watching CNN and particularly admiring the work of Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon.

She’s gotten her first journalism experience this semester as an intern, working 12 hours a week, at RealSTLNews, a Black owned and operated online news outlet focused on St. Louis and its surrounding communities. But her goal is to one day report or anchor on camera.

She had that future in mind when she decided to enroll in Associate Professor Jacqueline Thompson’s “Acting for the Camera” course this semester in hopes it would help her get over some shyness.

“Because we’re virtual, obviously, we have to record ourselves and then submit it,” Sonja Thompson said. “It’s really helping me to speak more fluently and be comfortable being in front of the camera. That’s been really beneficial for me.”

Meanwhile, Jacqueline Thompson said she’s been an asset to her classmates, encouraging and affirming during and after performances. As she’s learned more about Sonja, she’s found herself moved by her tenacity.

“She shared many personal stories with me about what she has had to overcome and navigate while in school,” Jacqueline said. “I was inspired by her determination and resilience to show up despite the chaos of life. She never missed a class and consistently explored ways to present the highest quality of work.

“Her dreams are big, and her future is bigger.”

Sonja Thompson is excited to be moving on to that future. She’s doing so confidently because of what she’s already achieved.

“Life is just beginning for me,” she said. “I feel so accomplished.”

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