Howtoria Whitehead’s path to graduation wasn’t always easy, but she knows the challenges were worth the work. Whitehead will graduate this December with a degree in elementary education from the College of Education and plans to pursue a master’s beginning in January.
Her journey at Wayne State began in 2010, after earning an associate degree from Wayne County Community College. At the time, she was a single mother to three, balancing childrearing and fixing up an abandoned home. With so much on her plate, she ultimately decided to pause on her studies. She returned to WSU through the Warrior Way Back program in 2019.
“I’ve been in school for 16 years, and it’s been a battle sometimes,” she said. “If that opportunity to come back wasn’t given to me through the Warrior Way Back program, I don’t know that I would have ever finished — it put the fire back in me.”
Teaching was a natural for Whitehead, who was influenced at an early age by a special educator: her eighth-grade geometry teacher, Ms. Lakowski.
“Ms. Lakowksi was the first person who made me feel like someone cared — she was a teacher and she just loved it,” Whitehead said. “And that made a huge difference.”
Whitehead plans to carry that passion to her own students.
“I thought with teaching, you could save the world,” she said. “And while it’s not that simple with all the politics and rules sometimes, teachers really do have the ability to fix the world by impacting the way the next generation sees it and sees themselves.”
As a student, Whitehead leaned heavily on the support of her family, especially her mom. She also worked with academic advisor and mentor-teachers who encouraged her to stay focused and flexible.
“I’ve learned that a lot of being a teacher is kind of like being a ninja — it’s an artform where you’ve got to jump and adapt to any and everything — you’ve got to innovate and find creative ways to close gaps for the students to succeed.”
She also credits the strength and diversity of her fellow students at Wayne State and beyond. Whitehead served as a tutor on the eastside of Detroit through the GoodFellow program and also participated in the English Language Institute’s Conversation Partner program, where she met a long-time friend who lives in Brazil with whom she communicates often.
“Working collectively with other students who showed me the true importance of diversity and how it can be impacted and changed with love and respect for our differences,” she said. “I have the pleasure of saying I have sisters and brothers from another mother, and we’ve learned from each other.”
Following graduation, Whitehead will complete the Michigan Test for Teaching Certification and plans to start substitute teaching through multiple districts to get a feel for where she might want to teach permanently. No matter where she ends up, Whitehead knows she’ll find fulfilment in her work — whether it’s watching a child have a “lightbulb” moment or sharing in a pizza party with her class.
“It’s such a high, special moment, when you see it on a child’s face or hear it in their voice that they’ve made a connection and learned something new,” she said. “I love being able to see them grow and share in those moments.”