Decades after Elizabeth “BJ” Mathis took her first college course, she decided to go back and finish her degree.
“Raising children, pursuing my career, getting my children through school and college, and my husband were priorities,” she said. “And so, I just set my education aside until we were at a place where I could actually complete my degree.”
When that time came, she chose Mercer University’s Henry County Regional Academic Center to help her meet her goals. She graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in organizational leadership.
For 20 years, the Henry County center has been helping working adult students like Mathis earn a college degree. Since 2003, 2,676 students have earned 2,879 degrees from the campus in McDonough.
Students who attend classes at the Henry County center primarily are working adult students or adults with other responsibilities during the day. Because of this, classes at the center are held only in the evening or on Saturday, said Jamie Brown, director of strategic operations and student success for Mercer’s Regional Academic Centers. Classes are offered online, in-person and through a combination of both.
“It’s more conducive to their schedules, and I have found that it also helps a lot with their being able to take care of their families. Childcare is not as big of an issue if you know there’s only four nights of the month for two months — or even less — that you have to be at a spot,” she said. “So that’s one of the things that makes the center very unique.
“Plus, there is the fact that we make sure that our programs that are offered in the centers align with what our communities need.”
In Henry, that means offering programs from the College of Education, College of Professional Advancement and the School of Business. Pre-health students may also take core classes there before moving on to study nursing, pharmacy or other health professions, she said.
Brown is a Mercer graduate herself. In 2003, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University’s Covington campus, which closed with the opening of the center in Henry County. She started working in Henry County a few years later as a tutor in the Academic Resource Center. She was named to her current position in 2022.
“My heart of service is with helping adult students,” she said.
It can be hard going to college as a working adult, but the Henry County center faculty and staff do their best to ease the transition.
“It was very intimidating going back at my age after an extended absence,” said Mathis, who is now development director for The Bridge Wellness South, a nonprofit crisis pregnancy center. “What I appreciated about the campus was, first of all, the size of it. It gave the professors an opportunity to really get to know their students, and I think in turn, it allowed them to see strengths and weaknesses in ways that they could encourage or help us excel in our studies.”
Willie Brown, who graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, took classes at the Henry County center while working as a deputy in the Henry County Sheriff’s Office. Not only was the location convenient, but at the center, he found the academic help he needed to succeed.
“The professors that I had there were excellent. They cared about you, but at the same time they cared about the reputation of the University,” he said. “They wanted to ensure that (students) had character and the knowledge needed to move communities forward.”
Kelly Browning never thought she would have a bachelor’s degree, much less a master’s, and now she’s earned both from the Henry County center. As a student success coordinator at the center, she’s helping others do the same.
Browning spent over a decade working with children before she came to Mercer as a student. As she pursued her degrees, she served as a student ambassador and wrote an advice column for The Den. Her passion began to shift toward helping adults achieve their goals, like others at Mercer helped her.
“People would walk in the door at Henry, and they would be like, ‘I’m not sure I can do this.’ Very much like me,” said Browning, who earned her bachelor’s degree in early childhood and special education in 2021 and master’s degree in higher education leadership in 2022. “I saw where my value was in helping others and being able to guide others.”
Mercer changed her life, she said.
“I never in a million, billion, trillion years thought that I would be where I am today,” she said. “If you had asked me in 2017, even at the beginning of 2019 when I walked into Mercer, if you had said, ‘You’re going to be working for the University, and you’re going to be helping other students complete their journey,’ I’d have thought you were crazy.”
Over the past 20 years, the Henry County center has positively impacted individuals and the community as a whole, said Mathis, who has lived in Henry County for 40 years, including eight on the Henry County Commission. She served as both a district commissioner and chair, of which she was the first woman to hold the seat.
“Prior to Mercer opening its doors, our residents were having to travel pretty substantial distances to complete their education. They were either going to Atlanta or Athens because there just wasn’t a university here close by,” she said. “Most of the people that I knew were raising families, and they were trying to work, so taking time away to attend college was a challenge, but taking time away and having a long commute made it even more challenging.
“So, when Mercer opened the doors here, it literally improved the quality of life overnight for people who live in our community.”
The Henry County center also made the county more attractive to businesses looking to locate there, she said.
“When a company wants to relocate to an area, the first thing they look at is education,” she said. “They want to look at K-12, but then they also look at higher education, and the reason that they do that is because that is an indicator that you have a trained workforce, or you have the potential for one.
“So just the name Mercer University alone was very helpful in attracting business and industry to our county.”
Finally, Mercer professors and staff are involved in the Henry County community, offering training and facilities to local groups as needed.
“Having Mercer in this county, from my political perspective, is probably one of the best things to happen to us,” Mathis said.