SALT LAKE CITY — Being raised by a mother addicted to meth, growing up in poverty, asking neighbors for water when utilities were shut off and dropping out of high school her junior year, the thought of going to college never crossed Erin Bishop's mind.
She certainly never saw herself graduating with a master's degree and giving a commencement speech to 10,488 college graduates.
"I'm so nervous," Bishop said with a laugh. "I'll get up there with this blank stare, start doing shadow puppets on the wall."
Western Governors University is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and Saturday is its 33rd semiannual commencement ceremony. Bishop is one of three speakers addressing graduates from all 50 states.
She received two degrees from WGU — a dual bachelor's degree in special education and general education, along with finishing a master's in instructional design in October. And she did it all while raising two kids as a single mother.
"I could work in the day, be a mom at night, and then in the middle of the night, I could do my schoolwork," Bishop said.
The Layton native works as a behavior specialist for the Weber School District, rotating between 27 elementary schools and helping develop behavior plans for challenged students.
"My heart was just with special education, and from my own upbringing, I love the behavior kids," she said. "The ones that are known for being troublemakers, they’re the ones that I’ve always been able to understand and click with."
Bishop knows firsthand the struggles and challenges kids face in tough circumstances. Her own mother was pregnant as a teenager and raised four kids alone, battling a meth addiction and using her GED to find work.
"I was exposed to a world far different than many other kids even know exists at a very young age. I had to grow up fast," Bishop said. "There wasn't a lot of focus, if at all, on our education."
She dropped out of Northridge High School during her junior year, hoping to find a job so she could escape her home environment.
"I was more focused on survival at that time," Bishop said.
That's when biology and environmental science teacher Rudy Jones stepped in.
"I had a teacher save me," Bishop said, calling Jones the first person to help her see her "value and potential."
Bishop had been serving as Jones' teaching assistant, and when he learned she had dropped out of school, he immediately went to talk to the school counselors.
"I helped her get back in school and got her schedule going again," Jones said. "I didn’t think I did anything special."
Bishop started going to classes again, but during her senior year she found out she was pregnant with her son, Caleb.
"Caleb's dad was also a teenager, and when we got pregnant, we tried to do the whole parenting thing together and it just didn't work," she said. "So less than a year later, I was a single, teenage parent."
Again, Bishop's high school teacher encouraged her to work through her challenges.
"He went above and beyond to help me get there," Bishop said. "That’s why I became a teacher; it was my way of giving back. I would not be here if it wasn’t for Mr. Jones. I wouldn’t. I’d be a high school dropout."
Bishop graduated high school a few months early and found a job with benefits, but she didn't want to give up on having a career. After completing an associate degree with the University of Phoenix, she turned to Western Governors University for a more affordable option.
The university hasn't raised tuition costs in more than nine years, and Bishop worked on her online degree at her own pace. What should have taken four years to complete took just two.
"It goes back to that simple lesson that Mr. Jones taught me: You can do hard things," she said.
Bishop also credits her ex-stepfather for her success, as he opened his home to her and her two kids while she worked on her degrees.
Among the many graduates who apply to speak at commencement, Bishop stood out, WGU President Scott Pulsipher said.
"It’s very, very difficult to select simply because of the many challenges and setbacks and tough life circumstances that these individuals overcome," Pulsipher said. "She’s definitely one of the unique ones out there."
Western Governors University has awarded more than 87,000 degrees since it began in 1997. More than 60 percent of graduates are underserved, including low-income students, ethnic minorities, first-generation graduates and those living in rural areas.
"I don’t think many people realize when you’re raised in that environment how far out of the realm of possibility it seems," Bishop said about graduating. "You have a lot of self-doubt to accomplish something so great."
After graduating with her bachelor's degree, Bishop taught fourth and sixth grades in the Ogden School District. She recently accepted a new job as behavior specialist in the Weber District.
"The only reason I decided on that career was because it was my way to give back," she said.
Bishop said she still keeps in touch with her former teacher over Facebook.
And for Jones, seeing Bishop succeed has been rewarding.
"I didn’t realize I had that much of an impact on her," he said. "For a teacher, those are the rewards that really count. It’s not the money or all that stuff. It’s seeing the kids that you teach be successful."