Her father passed away when she was only 6 years old, and she’s raised her two daughters without a father even close to being in the picture.
Wheeling resident Amy Jo Hutchinson was forced to fill both roles as a mother-slash-father, and that is one of a plethora of reasons why she returned to college in 2015 and completed her bachelor’s degree a couple of weeks ago at the age of 45.
A Moundsville native and a 1989 graduate of John Marshall High School, Hutchinson initially moved away to attend West Virginia Wesleyan University in Buckhannon, W.Va., but with a single semester remaining, she opted out.
She moved home.
“I did very well in high school because I’ve always been a nerd because I’ve always loved to learn,” Hutchinson explained. “After I graduated, I went to West Virginia Wesleyan for three-and-a-half years, and then I dropped out with only one semester left.
“During that final semester, I would have had to do my student teaching to be an elementary education teacher, and by then I realized I didn’t like it and didn’t want to do it,” she said. “I look back at it now, and knowing the person I am today, I could have never been a teacher. I don’t believe I would have had the patience it takes these days to be an educator.”
There were more reasons, though.
“When I growing up, we were very poor, and it’s real common for people who grew up in poverty to go to college and to quit, and that’s because when you live in poverty, the only thing you really do have is your family,” Hutchinson said. “It may not be stable, and it may not be functional, but it’s your family.
“I moved nearly four hours away, and that was a big deal for us, and when I came home, I had changed, but my family hadn’t changed,” she recalled. “And my friends hadn’t changed, and Moundsville was still the same, too. So, I heard about it. People asked me if I was trying to better than everyone else. It got heavy, and I just quit and moved home because I didn’t think I could lose my family and my friends.”
Hutchinson had changed, too, and family members and friends questioned her over and over again about why she was viewing the world much differently from the way she had during her high school days.
“And one of the biggest changes that I experienced concerned diversity. I became far more accepting of people than I had been during high school, and I even took home an African-American boyfriend. That was something you didn’t do much of in the early 1990s,” she said. “But I didn’t see anything wrong with it because of all of the cultural differences between college and home.
“My plan was to move to Washington, D.C., because that boyfriend played bass in the President’s Band in the White House, … and he still does today,” Hutchinson said. “I was going to get out of this valley and go see the bigger and better things the world had to offer. That was my plan, but then I realized I needed my family more.”
Even though she was damning herself back into an economic struggle, she left the bachelor’s degree, the boyfriend, and Buckhannon behind and returned for a minimum-wage position with Northwood Health Systems. She retained the employment for 16 years and birthed a pair of girls along the way. Grace, 13, is, “a brainiac,” and Michaela is 10 and loves the arts and is very creative.
“One thing about living in poverty is that it’s pretty deep. You can’t learn about it from a textbook because of how much goes into it. To fully understand it, you have to live through it,” Hutchinson said. “Most people likely don’t realize how difficult living in poverty is. It’s harder than what most people think.
“It’s a mindset, and oftentimes it’s generational, so it becomes the norm. It became my norm, and it’s become the norm for my daughters, too,” she continued. “And if you don’t realize what is wrong with that norm, you never understand why the rest of the world does.”
She found a position as a pre-school instructor after completing the training to acquire the necessary credentials, but then a back injury forced her to resign and find something new that she was capable of doing.
That process did not go well.
“I went to job interview after job interview after job interview, but none of those worked out. When I was leaving the interviews, I thought I had a chance, but then a few days later that damned letter would arrive in the mail. That’s when I knew I had to do something, so that’s when I decided I needed to go back to school,” Hutchinson explained. “And, to be honest, I think going back to college may have helped me not lose my mind because I was in a pretty bad place after all of those rejections.
“I had been the only parent my girls had ever known for 13 years, and I was tired. You get tired. Even when I was a pre-school teacher, I was still living below the poverty line,” she said. “A big part of that was the fact I was only adult in the house, and that was hard. I had the certifications and the credentials, but I was still only making 11-something an hour and struggling with my two daughters.”
Kaplan University was Hutchinson’s chosen institution because she discovered she could earn a degree in Human Services with a specialization in child and family welfare and complete the curriculum all online.
“That’s the only way I could make it work, and it worked out just fine, and during the two years I was in college I completed 16 classes to finish with my degree, and I really enjoyed a lot of those classes,” she said. “I learned how to do research for the position I wished to gain, and I learned a lot more about at-risk youth, case management, and policy and procedure.
“For my commencement, I did travel to Kaplan’s campus in Hagerstown, Md., and I had to do that for my two daughters because i am their only parent. I’m it. They had to see me walk across that stage at the age of 45 because they know how hard I worked to achieve that. It was a pretty big sacrifice for all of us because we didn’t do much on weekends because I was always in front of the computer working on my classes and writing papers.”
Hutchinson, who organized the collection of donations for the flood victims in central and southern West Virginia nearly a year ago, was graduated from Kaplan with a 3.98 grade-point average.
“I’m very proud of that, but it also makes me a little mad because I only received one B and that was in composition,” she said with a smile. “But when I walked across that stage with my arms in the air and I was screaming, ‘YEAH!’ the whole time. The president of the university just started laughing at me and said, ‘Oh, Amy Jo.’ But that was my moment. That was it, and the president told my story during the ceremony so everyone in the room understood why I was there.
“All of the people there were pretty excited for me and for their own graduates,” Hutchinson said. “My daughter Grace told me that she couldn’t take any photos because she was crying the whole time, and Michaela cried the whole time, too. They were that happy for me because they really understood what it meant to me.”
These days Hutchinson is employed by Our Children, Our Future, a non-profit organization with a mission to end child poverty in West Virginia. She covers 23 counties including the Northern Panhandle and examines what struggles young people are experiencing in each area.
“At this point in time I am in a very good place because I now have a great job, and I can relax a little bit,” Hutchinson reported. “I work on issues like health care and special needs individuals in an effort to improve the quality of life. Even though lawmakers are trying to take away funding from those citizens, I work to organize efforts to reach out to the legislators and educate them because it’s probable those folks don’t realize the impacts.
“Like I explained before, you don’t know poverty unless you’ve lived it like I have and like my daughters have,” she said. “And I hope graduating from college showed my daughters something about not allowing it to defeat me like it did the first time. I believe it’s important because I’m the only parent they have.”
(Photos provided by Amy Jo Hutchinson)