by Dana Dobson

At my daughter’s graduation ceremony at Temple University two years ago, I wept, smiled, nudged my sister, giggled, thanked God, and wept some more.

From my perch in the nosebleed seats, Jessie was a tiny speck in a sea of black gowns and mortar boards, yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She had done it—studied hard, worked endless hours at part-time jobs, received scholarships—while still in her 20s, eager to take the world and its challenges head on. One of my biggest dreams for her had come true: a bachelor’s degree. One of my core beliefs was that if she had a college degree at an early age, she’d have a better chance in life than I’d had.

My 20s were very different than Jessie’s. In my head, I call it the “lost decade,” because during those years I disappeared from the land of hope and promise and sank, like a heavy, rotting log, into the murky waters of a terrifying, abusive marriage. The sign over our front door may as well have said, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

After high school graduation, I attended New York University, where I studied to be an actress and director. The creative life, in my opinion, was the only life worth pursuing, and I celebrated my arrival to the Washington Square campus by flinging my arms wide and laughing with joy. But alas, my dance with dark choices was about to begin.

Suffice it to say I was unable to pursue a college education during my 20s. My prospects for a creative life—or at least, a good life—were dismal. It was what I believed at the time. There wasn’t the social support for battered women back then as there is now, not that I knew of, anyway. There were no domestic violence shelters, no women’s advocacy groups, and no sympathy from police officers responding to my 9-1-1 calls.

Then, as I neared the age of 30 and became pregnant, I gathered every morsel of courage and brought my nightmarish existence to a screeching halt. Something in me snapped. I got mad. There was NO way, NO way I was going to bring a little girl into this miserable corner of violence and despair. I kicked my abuser to the curb and demanded he give me money so I could enroll at the local community college. High five, please.

I had my baby at the end of the first semester (it’s a great way to get out of finals!), and during the next four years was able to raise her, work as a freelance journalist and study. My grades were good enough to get a full scholarship to the state university where I earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations. I have achieved my dream of living a creative life.

I was 32 when I graduated. I got a late start, but also a fresh start. Therefore, I do what I can to ensure that other women like me, who had their worlds torn apart or their educations disrupted, get a second, or even a third, chance to pursue their dreams. I do it for the mothers among us who want their children to live in a better world. I do it for my former self, too, who needed someone like me back then, but couldn’t find her.

Your love, money, time and experience to support the education of even just one woman who needs it makes a huge, positive difference, not just for that one woman, but for her progeny and every other life she touches.

I believe in fresh starts, and I believe in the Fresh Start Scholarship Foundation.

What’s your story?