Woman overcomes odds to earn doctorate, help others

Sandi Hagans had her first child at age 14.

“I look at those teen moms on TV, and it’s not glamorous like that,” Hagans said. “I can tell you about playing outside at 13 and then at 14, you’re a mom. That’s scary. It’s not what they portray; it’s frightening.”

Despite having six children by the age of 22, Hagans persevered. In January, the now 51-year-old received her doctorate in education. She puts her experiences and her degree to work as a program manager at First State Community Action Agency in Georgetown.

“I used to be embarrassed to tell my story, but now it’s my pride and glory,” she said. “There was a lot of struggle and a lot of heartbreak, but I really believe it was all for a purpose and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

SUBHEAD**** Beginnings

Hagans was raised by her mother in the Selbyville area, seventh amongst 12 siblings. Though her father left when she was about 5 years old, Hagans’ childhood was a happy one.

“My mom worked hard to provide for us, in poultry plants, doing housekeeping in Ocean City,” she said. “My siblings were key. We had to make sure we got along, did our chores. We did each other’s hair – even the brothers did the sisters’ hair. We just took care of and supported one another.”

She remembered a childhood spent playing outside, making up games with her siblings. Her older sister was often in charge, and her grandmother and aunts and uncles provided support.

“We’re a very close-knit family,” she said.

After having her first child at 14, Hagans managed to stay in school, but after having two more children by the time she was 18, she dropped out in her final year of high school. She gave birth again at 21. Then, at 22, she had twins.

“I tried to go back to school multiple times, but having kids, it was difficult,” she said. “I didn’t always have childcare or transportation.”

After earning her GED when she was about 34 years old, Hagans did so well she was encouraged to go on to college. She enrolled at Delaware Technical and Community College in Georgetown, and spent six years working toward an associate degree in human services. After finishing at Del Tech, Hagans went straight on to Wilmington University. Over time, she’d earn her bachelor’s degree in behavioral science, master’s in community counseling and doctorate in education.

SUBHEAD*** Juggling work, school and motherhood

Hagans has worked steadily toward her goals in education while working full time and raising six children of her own plus countless other kids in the community.

“I had a lot of kids that were just dropped off at my house,” she said. “Sometimes they’d move in for a while because their own home wasn’t the best, or parents would leave them with me because they were bad. I’m kind of known as a community mom, you know, ‘Send ‘em to Miss Sandi, she’ll get ‘em right.’”

It was clear to the community that Hagans had empathy for children. She could easily connect with them, too.

“Young people, when they act out, they’re not bad,” she said. “They have issues they don’t know how to handle. I try to remember when I was that age and I was acting out. What message was I trying to get across? What attention did I need?”

While still working on her bachelor’s degree, Hagans started working at First State Community Action Agency, a government- and donation-funded nonprofit that provides services and programs to low-income communities. Her first job there was as a project coordinator for FAST, or Families And Schools Together, which helps children thrive in school by fostering child-parent relationships at home. She moved on to become a community development specialist, working to improve low-income communities in unincorporated areas through things like sidewalks, street lights and septic maintenance. Later, she headed up an after-school program at the former Richard Allen School in Georgetown.

Hagans now is a program manager for FSCAA’s eight after-school program locations, in the Georgetown, Bridgeville, Rehoboth and Milford areas. The program is free for low-income families with over 400 students. Each day after school, students have a snack and do homework before participating in enrichment activities, such as presentations from groups like the Boy Scouts, field trips to places like Abbott’s Mill or plays at nearby theaters. The program encompasses a four-week summer camp in July, so students can spend about 10 months of the year with FSCAA.

As program manager, Hagans is responsible for writing grants. She’s secured about $900,000 since 2003.

“When I first chose the human services field I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. “I knew it was a helping field and that was where my heart was. Everything came full circle, and I guess it was all for this purpose.”

SUBHEAD*** Family ties

Two of Hagans’ daughters became pregnant and had children as teens, becoming the fourth generation in their family to be teen moms.

“I realized there was a lack of education, some things we needed to be taught,” Hagans said. “We can’t have my granddaughters growing up and having kids at 14. So I changed the whole mindset of my house, and education became the key. We competed for grades, me and the kids both. There was a reward system, and that kept everyone on their p’s and q’s.”

All her children graduated high school or obtained a GED. Five went on to college. She now has 15 grandchildren. Hagans’ mother, Anita Briddell, died in January, just before her daughter’s final graduation ceremony.

“When mom passed away, [my siblings and I] made a promise to each other that we’d keep the family together, because she was always that bond,” Hagans said. “So we all have dinner one Sunday a month. It was supposed to be just the siblings and their families, but cousins and a bunch of other people started showing up, now we have 75 or 80 people. It’s like Thanksgiving once a month.”

Despite the sadness of her mother’s passing, the future is bright. She’s engaged to be married in May and wants to continue working with students. She would like to write a book and to tell her story through motivational speaking.

“I just really believe that God uses me,” she said. “And if he’s going to put it in front of me, he’s going to equip me for it.”