The Lampkin sisters — Zanda, 50, Erneka, 43, and Tiffany, 36 — always wanted to become college graduates, but never expected to achieve that dream together given their age difference. Life got in the way of each of their plans for higher education, but after years of hard work and perseverance, the stars finally aligned for the three Houstonians in 2020 when they finally earned their long sought-after college degrees, together.
In an unexpected twist, all three of the Lampkin sisters walked across the University of Houston Downtown’s virtual graduation stage on Saturday, after they all completed bachelor’s degrees in interdisciplinary studies this year — Zanda and Erneka this summer, and Tiffany this past semester.
It’s exciting enough to finally earn a degree after years and years of hard work, but getting to share that milestone as a family made it feel that much more special, the sisters said. And that the Lampkins achieved their shared goal despite all the challenges of this wild and awful year makes it even sweeter.
“Especially since we’re like seven years apart…we never thought this was gonna happen,” Erneka said about the timing of their graduations.
“It definitely wasn’t the plan,” Zanda said with a chuckle.
Tiffany joked that she was nervous until her final grades came in this past Monday that some last-minute hiccup on her part might mean they wouldn’t get to graduate together after all.
“I was like ‘I hope I pass my classes!’” Tiffany said.
“We knew you would be fine!” Erneka chimed in, laughing.
“We had faith in you!” Zanda said.
For each of the Lampkin sisters, the road to becoming a college graduate has been long and winding. Zanda temporarily attended Southwest Texas State University (Texas State’s old name), but she was lured away from the classroom and back to Houston by the working world.
“I originally started out as a business major, but then I just got really good jobs,” Zanda said of her career in the healthcare industry as a software implementation consultant. She’d been taking classes part-time here and there at UHD while working since 2001, until 2020 came knocking.
“April 3 this year I turned 50… five days after that, I was furloughed from a job I was with for 12 years,” Zanda said. Undaunted by her sudden unemployment, Zanda decided to take advantage of her less busy schedule to take classes full-time and finally finish her degree.
Erneka started her college career off at Texas Southern University studying criminal justice — “I planned on being in internal affairs, [and] I knew I had to be a cop first,” she said. The middle Lampkin sister eventually transferred to UHD, where she took classes off-and-on while she worked at Southwestern Bell, but eventually had to put her studies on hold to raise her son as a single mother.
After Erneka’s son was diagnosed with autism six years ago, she was inspired to start working toward her degree again. But instead of criminal justice, she now wants to be a special education teacher.
“I felt like going back [and] bettering myself would not only benefit him, but in the future would benefit other parents,” she said. “I don’t want to see anyone go through what I went through, so if I can somehow give back in a positive way with my experience, then that’s what I want to do.”
While her older sister decided later on in life to teach, Tiffany has wanted to be a teacher for years, and started working toward that goal at the University of Houston. “That’s always been a passion of mine,” Tiffany said. “I love kids, I like working with kids, so my major at first was math. I wanted to be a middle school or high school math teacher.”
“She’s a genius in math, just by the way!” Erneka shouted.
Eventually, Tiffany fell into some financial trouble and ended up owing money to UH, so she took a break from school and started working as a substitute teacher and later as a teacher’s aide. Seven years later and just after Hurricane Harvey hit, Tiffany and her young daughter had to pack up and leave town with her fiancé, after his employer Comcast transferred him to Atlanta.
Tiffany kept working as an aide in Atlanta, saving up enough money to pay off her debt. When she had her second daughter in June 2019 and knew she’d be staying home, Tiffany decided it’d be a good time to start taking some classes to get back on track to graduate.
She enrolled at UHD because of what she’d heard from her sisters and because she planned to move back to Houston eventually, which she and her family did in January 2020. Although the pandemic meant she couldn’t attend classes in-person as she’d hoped, she was able to keep at it with online classes before finally crossing the finish line this past weekend.
Even though they’ve graduated with their bachelor’s degrees, the Lampkin sisters’ education journeys are far from over; Tiffany and Erneka are now planning to get their teaching certificates, and Zanda has enrolled in UHD’s master’s program in nonprofit management.
As proud as the sisters are of themselves, the Lampkins’ parents might be even more thrilled; they never graduated college themselves, and always dreamed that their daughters would one day break that barrier.
“My mom… she always wanted her daughters to graduate from college, that’s her thing,” Erneka said. “She even mentioned to me yesterday when we were on a call that ‘I didn’t really have anything to do with it, but I’m just so proud of y’all.’”
The Lampkin sisters hope their stories inspire folks to realize that getting a college degree is never too out of reach, no matter the obstacles in the way.
“Never give up,” Zanda said. “You’re never too old to give up, no matter what your circumstance is. You always can go back to school, or take some kind of training or go for your passion. But never give up.”
“I feel like that’s an important message… there’s always gonna be things that you can do for others, but find something that’s important to you,” Tiffany said. “And if it’s going back to school, then go back to school… it’s all worth it in the end.”