KOKOMO, Ind. — Nearly 30 years ago, fear of failure, along with lack of anybody to believe in her, led Angela Bailiff to drop out of high school.
Decades later, when her daughter began talking about quitting, Bailiff knew it was time to change her path. After decades of jobs in fast food, janitorial work, newspaper delivery and sales, and other physical labor, she plucked up the courage to try school again, successfully completing her GED when she was 44.
“Once I figured out I was not incompetent, and that in fact, I was quite capable at school, I started to excel,” she said. “I got that taste of success, and I wanted more. My daughter saw that we had done OK, but she didn’t remember me working three jobs to make ends meet. I didn’t want that for her, so I tried to set a better example.”
She didn’t stop at her GED — in December 2020, Bailiff, now 51, completed her bachelor’s degree in English at Indiana University Kokomo. She’s applying to graduate programs, with the goal of teaching at the college level, so she can influence others the way her professors impacted her.
In particular, she mentioned J.R. Pico, senior lecturer in Spanish, who made what was a difficult subject for her easy to understand.
“His commitment to diversity education and community service made me want to do more,” she said, adding that he was also helpful with her disability. “He always made sure I had accommodations for my hearing impairment, and went above the call of duty to make sure it didn’t hinder my learning.”
It wasn’t an easy road for Bailiff — in addition to her hearing loss, she received custody of her infant granddaughter while she was in school, and worked multiple jobs.
She’s proud to have persevered, and earned her father’s praise for her accomplishments. As a struggling high school student, she made sure he never saw her report cards. As a high-achieving college student, she sent him a copy of her dean’s list letter every semester, and was especially pleased to show him her diploma.
“I said, ‘Not bad for a high school dropout,’ when I told him about all the things going on. He said, ‘You were a high school dropout, but never call yourself that again. You are an accomplished, educated woman,’” she said. “To hear those words from him flipped my perceptions, and gave me a new perspective of myself.”
It took Bailiff a while to find her path after she earned her GED. She first enrolled at Ivy Tech’s agriculture program, planning to be a production farmer, but soon decided she wasn’t up to the physical challenge it presented. She found a new possibility when she was asked to be a teaching assistant for freshman composition classes.
“I found I had a knack for teaching, and I loved it,” she said, adding that she finished an associate degree in education before enrolling at IU Kokomo. As she worked on her degree, she’s been a substitute teacher and STEM tutor at area schools, which allowed her to do her own schoolwork while the students were busy — again, setting an example.
“I didn’t expect to be an inspiration to anyone. I wasn’t sure I would make it through my first semester,” she said. “They would see me working on my homework, or I could answer their questions because I had just studied something, and it really inspired some of them to really buckle down and think about continuing their education. That’s been a pleasant side effect.”
Her daughter is among those inspired, and Bailiff is excited that she is completing a high school diploma through the Excel Center.
“She’s talking about college for the first time in her life,” she said. “I’m super proud of my daughter. I’ve inspired more people through my troubles and obstacles than I ever intended to.”