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Nikki Smith

When she gets to an English program at a four-year college, Nikki Smith will have plenty to write about.

The 26-year-old Smith balances part-time work and single motherhood, all while maintaining her place on the Dean’s List. She was homeless for nine months while earning a spot in Phi Theta Kappa, the community college honors society. She was honored this spring as one of Columbus State’s Outstanding Woman Leaders.

She keeps going with a steady eye on her goals.

“Instead of trying to go from one moment to the next, you have to have that forward thinking of how to build some stability in your life,” Smith said. “My daughter – she’s my motivation, right there.”

Juggling college and motherhood takes skill, Smith said.

“This year of school has been me trying to move and manage childcare,” Smith said. “It’s no sleep. It’s no sleep and continually living out of my book bag everywhere.”

She advises other student-parents to be realistic about what they can take on – and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s important to have peers to help talk through issues. And she cites two Columbus State staffers in particular: Sarah Baker of Global Diversity & Inclusion, for helping her navigate college; and Kim Rhyan of Student Engagement & Leadership, for helping her find housing this spring.

Smith had a 4.0 in high school, but dropped out of school to take care of her daughter. She earned her GED while enduring a spell of homelessness. She worked a series of jobs, but always with an eye toward serving the community in addition to keeping food on the table. She spent a year as the art director for the Salesian Club in downtown Columbus and joined City Year, an AmeriCorps volunteerism program.

City Year carried with it a tuition stipend, so Smith took advantage of the opportunity to come to Columbus State in Summer 2011. She started out in the Business Management’s Nonprofit Management certificate, but decided supervising a staff wasn’t for her.

She’s now planning to transfer to Ohio State University to study English, with a concentration in publishing and screenwriting. Columbus State’s Transfer Programs let students complete the first two years of a bachelor’s degree – with Columbus State’s low tuition and small classes – before finishing up at a four-year college.

Smith’s currently working on a play based on her experiences called “Through the Eyes of Poverty.” It is meant to illustrate poverty below the surface-value stereotypes in order to provide people of privilege with an inside scope of what it's like on the other side of the tracks.

Smith’s list of volunteer experiences is lengthy: In addition to City Year, she’s been active with the Columbus State Leadership Society, Phi Theta Kappa, the Salesian Club, the Central Ohio Pride Festival, and she’s currently working with Columbus State’s Women’s Connection, which connects low-income women with experienced professional mentors.

“I’m trying to be part of the solution in my community, instead of being one of those people who complains about problems,” Smith said.

That long list of accomplishments led to her receiving one of the college’s Outstanding Women Leader awards this spring. In nominating Smith, Rhyan said she couldn’t think of a better recipient. “She is articulate, compassionate, giving, and courageous. She sets the example for other students, to go after their dreams, no matter what!”