It was 4 a.m. on May 24, 2022, and Nadja Payton lay in her hospital bed with her newborn son resting on her chest, her laptop at her side. She was in the final year of her Doctor of Education program at the University of Dayton, mere months from turning in her dissertation. Payton’s son, Tripp, was born two and a half months premature and he and Payton had been in the hospital for more 30 days. Payton was physically and mentally drained, but full of self-doubt. She began typing emails to her academic advisor, her committee members, and her committee chairperson.
“I was hanging on by a thread,” Payton recalls. “I told them I was going to drop out, take some time off. That there’s no way that I was going to produce, by December, what they wanted in a dissertation.
But Payton never hit ‘send’ on those emails. Instead, she leaned into her trusted support system— her mother, grandmother, sister, advisors, and classmates — and she kept going. By December, Payton, who is an Intervention Specialist at John Adams College and Career Academy, published a dissertation that underscores the importance of special needs students’ inclusion in the general classroom and ways to overcome common barriers.
“I’m so proud,” she says. “I’m excited to share my research with my principals so we can make some positive, equitable change to help our students succeed and achieve.”
For Payton, overcoming challenges in the pursuit of academics is nothing new. And the commitment Payton needed to reach her final higher education goal felt much like the commitment she needed to reach her first higher education goal. Payton is a 2012 graduate of the Lorain County Early College High School Program, where high school students spend all four years taking courses on the Lorain County Community College campus, earning their diploma and associate degree at the same time.
The program is geared toward first-generation college students and helps families forgo the cost of a two-year degree. The Lorain native says attending Early College High School was the right choice – it just wasn’t hers. At the time, Payton’s older sister was two years into the program and thriving, so her mom chose the same route for her.
“It was challenging, but I learned eventually that was just high expectations,” Payton says. “The professors had high standards of us. And that’s what I needed.”
Those high standards and expectations helped mold and mature Payton faster than she thinks a traditional high school setting would have. And while Payton was worried about missing out on some experiences with friends, her Early College High School class bonded in ways she never expected.
“It wasn’t long after that ninth-grade year that I was able to say, ‘OK, this is where I’m supposed to be,’” she says. “We made our own little community here and it was amazing.”
The LCCC campus felt so much like home to Payton that after graduating from Early College High School in 2012, she enrolled in LCCC’s University Partnership program. Within three years, Payton earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Cleveland State University. And she followed that degree with a Master of Education in Special Education and Teaching.
“Early College High School set me up for success in so many ways,” Payton says. “I still thank my mom every day for forcing me to attend.”
Payton says no part of her teaching career pushed her to continue her education and earn her doctorate degree, which she did in December 2022. It was all her.
“I wanted to do something for myself as a personal goal, and I am very proud,” Payton says. “And when I was writing the acknowledgments in my dissertation, I made sure to include everybody that literally held my hand until I made it to that finish line.”
Those final months of graduate school will forever live in Payton’s mind as one of the most trying times of her life, but she says the foundation built during her Early College High School years helped her overcome the doubt and succeed. And her struggles and triumphs are now tools she uses in the classroom.
“If my students complain about homework or that I’m making them write a five-paragraph essay, I can say that I understand,” she says. “I get to be empathetic. But I also get to encourage them because I’ve been there before.”