At Kennesaw State, Johnnetta McSwain reached a major milepost on her life journey, from a life marred by childhood sexual abuse and an ensuing downward spiral, to one that portends a promising future as a motivational speaker, writer and consultant.
In a Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) documentary titled “The Road Beyond Abuse,” which aired in April 2009, McSwain – a 2006 KSU graduate – credits her alma mater with rescuing her and restoring her faith in humanity.
“KSU was the greatest experience of my life,” said McSwain, who majored in communication. “I had never encountered people who just wanted to help, especially not me – just because they could.”
McSwain, a high school dropout, said her experience at KSU gave her the confidence to face her past, finish college and go on to earn a master’s in social work at Clark Atlanta University, which she completed with honors in May 2009.
Breaking the Cycle
She has founded a nonprofit, “Breaking the Cycle, Beating the Odds,” to empower women to identify and end destructive cycles, using a 12-step program she developed, and has presented to professional social workers at five conferences since 2007. In April, the Siegel Institute at KSU honored her as its 2009 “Phenomenal Woman.”
The GPB documentary chronicles the remarkable stories of McSwain and another young man, both of whom escaped abuse and neglect with the intervention of caring adults.
At KSU, the interventions came from many people: the student worker McSwain encountered in the admissions office who scribbled the 10 steps to get into college; financial aid counselors who told her about Pell grants and walked her through the financial aid application; professors who helped her overcome difficulties in writing and math; and peers who allowed her to join study groups.
“I only had a GED and I couldn’t write a proper paragraph, but I was smart enough to identify the smartest people in each of my classes and ask them to help me study,” McSwain said. “The work seemed to come easy for most of them, and they thought I was smart too. But every time before we met, I had already spent hours studying the material.”
Told in often graphic terms, the documentary captures how McSwain and her sister endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of male relatives and family friends and their ensuing lives of pain and struggle. She impressed Pamela Roberts, executive producer at GPB, with her resilience.
“I wanted to explore why some people are able to transcend the abuse they received as children,” Roberts said.
Failure Was Not an Option
At 30, McSwain left Birmingham, Ala. and came to Atlanta with her 5- and 12-year-old sons to start a new life. She had no job or prospects, “nothing.” “I was literally running for my life,” she said.
Her resiliency prompted Jan Phillips and Len Witt, instructor and associate professor, respectively, in KSU’s communication department, to help her out.
“We were all inspired by Johnetta’s determination to succeed and her enthusiasm, which was infectious,” said Phillips, who as McSwain’s academic adviser steered her to less challenging classes to help build her confidence. “I believe she built self-respect while she was here and realized she had a lot of gifts in a lot of areas.”
McSwain, the first in her family to attend college, graduated from KSU in just three years.
“For me, failure was not an option.”