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Dean’s Award – Education: Mona Thompson Ross goes from high school dropout to top college graduate

Mona Thompson Ross first became interested in studying American Sign Language while working at a care home for adults with mental disabilities, many of whom were also hearing impaired. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

When Mona Thompson Ross was 18 years old, college was the furthest thing from her mind.

She had dropped out of high school and was working at a fast-food restaurant. Pregnant and struggling with homelessness, Thompson Ross found an apartment with help from a foster care worker. After another baby came and her relationship with the children’s father turned volatile, she took them to a nursery crisis center before moving back in with family.

Eventually, she earned her G.E.D. and began working as a heavy machinery operator. That initial step – and her continuing hard work and persistence – started her on a path that has led to her graduation from Sacramento State as one of the top students in her class.

Name: Shamona “Mona” Thompson Ross

Hometown: Sacramento

Degree: B.A. American Sign Language and Deaf Studies

Why Sac State? “The reason I enrolled in Sac State was because of the encouragement I received from the counselors and staff. They made me believe that I could even when I fought back on the idea. I truly did not believe that I would be successful and I was afraid.”

Dean Sidorkin says: “Through her work across Sacramento State and in the community, Ms. Thompson Ross exemplifies what it means to be an anchor institution – marrying her academic studies with local needs.”

Thompson Ross, an American Sign Language and Deaf Studies major, is the Dean’s Award winner for the College of Education, selected for exemplifying the best of her academic college.

Despite all the setbacks, Thompson Ross said there was never any choice but to move forward.

“One thing I always tell my kids is quitting is easy. If this thing called life was easy, everybody would be able to function, which is why we have so many challenges in life,” she said. “If I quit, where am I going to go? I don’t want to be an example of what quitting looks like, so it’s never really been an option.”

In 2008, Thompson Ross moved with her now-four children to an apartment across the street from American River College. At the same time, she was working in a care home with adults with mental disabilities, many of whom also were hearing-impaired.

Often, those adults were labeled as having “behavior issues,” Thompson Ross said, but she soon realized they were just trying to communicate through signing and getting frustrated no one could understand.

“They didn't have family, and so the caregivers were their family. So I thought, what if this was me or what if this was my family?” she said. “I have to look out for them.”

Thompson Ross began learning American Sign Language from a book, then signed up for classes at ARC. She wasn’t thinking much about graduating – college was not emphasized in her home when she was growing up, Thompson Ross said – but “just needed to do something different” and “advance in the job I was at.”

A counselor with the college’s Educational Opportunity Program and Services (EOP&S) eventually told her she had enough credits for her associate degree and that it was time to move on.

In summer 2018, she was getting ready to transfer to Sacramento State’s American Sign Language and Deaf Studies program when yet another setback hit: Thompson Ross was diagnosed with breast cancer. Just a few weeks before the start of the fall semester, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy. She didn’t know if she would be able to begin her studies.

“Some very persistent staff, faculty and administrators” pushed her to keep going, she said.

She couldn’t drive herself to school, and unable to carry a backpack, she wheeled her books and belongings through campus. Still, she excelled as part of Sac State’s and finished her first semester with a 4.0 GPA.

Thompson Ross said the incredible support across campus was instrumental in helping her persist to graduation. In addition to EOP, she utilized the Crisis Assistance and Resource Education Support (CARES) program and the MLK Center, and was a McNair Scholar. She took advantage of the 24-hour Academic Information Resources Center building, arriving early in the morning to study – or nap if needed.

She has been active on campus as an English Language Institute peer mentor and off campus through coaching youth basketball, supporting food programs with Fishers of Men Ministries, and serving as board member for the Sacramento nonprofit CROWN Community Advocacy.

Most recently, she began to collect tents and sleeping bags for the homeless, and put out a call on social media for others to join her.

“Through her work across Sacramento State and in the community, Ms. Thompson Ross exemplifies what it means to be an anchor institution – marrying her academic studies with local needs,” said Alexander “Sasha” Sidorkin, College of Education dean. “Her resilience and dedication represent some of the best achievements of our undergraduate students.”

Thompson Ross plans to pursue a graduate degree, but also says that after years of part-time jobs and life challenges, her immediate concern is making sure she can take care of her family.

Her journey from homeless high school dropout to top college graduate was long and difficult, but she recognizes how many people helped her along the way. That’s why, she says, it is her responsibility to support the next generation.

“When I became a college student, that's when the college community stepped in and became my support system, encouraging me to move forward,” she said. “The further I move, the bigger my support group gets, and so I have to give back like people gave to me.”

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About Jonathan Morales

Jonathan Morales joined the Sac State communications team in 2017 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. He enjoys local beer, Bay Area sports teams, and spending time outdoors with his family and dog.

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