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The last best gift: One GSW Hurricane's winding path to graduation

It’s not often that a college student is enrolled in the same university and at the same time as her own daughter. But that was exactly the case for PJ (Riner) Wilson. A 1997 graduate of Tri-County High School in Marion County, Ga., PJ had big dreams of being a forensic scientist and decided to pursue her bachelor's degree in biology. She started her college career at Kennesaw State University where she could live with her dad, who she had never lived with before. After one year, she decided to move back home with her mom and grandmother in Buena Vista. So, she started at Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) where things were going pretty well until she discovered she was pregnant with her daughter Avery in late 2000.

The new challenges of pregnancy made college classes more difficult, and PJ struggled through an unsuccessful semester in the spring of 2001. But she was determined, so she started taking classes again in August 2001 at nine months pregnant and delivered her beautiful baby girl one week early – only two and a half weeks into the new semester. She took a very brief two-week maternity leave and then went back to classes, leaving Avery with her mom about 30 minutes away from campus in Buena Vista. PJ would drive home during her breaks to feed her new baby, and then drive right back to her next class. But, as she said, “fall semester was a wash because I was quite overwhelmed with a newborn and college.” Fortunately, PJ had a great support system in her mother and grandmother, who always encouraged her in her endeavors. But she agrees it’s hard to take care of a baby when you’re also trying to focus on college classes. As she said, when your daughter brings you a book to read, “you read ‘Clifford’ and you put the bio chem down.” When PJ got pregnant again in 2005, she was almost finished with her classes, but she was spread really thin and noticed that her focus started to shift from forensics to the funeral business. 

In 2006, PJ transferred from GSW to Ogeechee Technical College in Statesboro to enroll in their online funeral program. With most of her core classes from GSW under her belt, she would focus on the new emphasis that really sparked her interest. The online program allowed her to continue working the two jobs that she had been balancing along with being a mother and a college student. In February 2007, she was hired at Tante Funeral Home in Buena Vista part-time. PJ was still taking online classes and was bartending and waiting tables at Floyd’s Pub at the Windsor Hotel in Americus. By this time, she had delivered her second daughter Austin.

Tante Funeral Home was bought by Eddie and Sharon Watson in 2011, and Eddie really encouraged PJ to push through and complete the program because she was such a valuable asset at the funeral home. Exhausted but undeterred, PJ completed the funeral program, graduated with her Associates of Applied Science in Funeral Service Education, and took her National Boards in May 2013, which certified her as a licensed funeral director and embalmer. In 2016, she became a licensed crematory operator and licensed life insurance and pre-need insurance agent in 2018. Fifteen years later, she is still happily employed at what is now Way-Watson Funeral Home.

PJ loves her job as a funeral director. It’s a heavy job dealing with loss and grief, and it can be tiring as funeral directors are always on call 24/7. But it is also rewarding to help those who are hurting and in a time of need, especially when the family she is meeting with is also a group of friends. When she is working with a former classmate who has lost a loved one or a childhood friend who has lost a parent, she feels like doing her best to make that process a little bit easier for them is “the last best thing” she can do for them. “When the families are hurting, it hurts my heart too,” PJ said. But helping these families during the most difficult time of their lives is a special gift that she can give…the last, best gift.

When PJ’s daughter Avery enrolled at GSW in 2019, her wheels started turning. “I wonder what I’ve got left on my bachelor’s degree,” she mused. The desire to finish what she started began to burn inside her, and Avery was absolutely on board encouraging her mom they could go to school together. Avery, who attended classes with PJ before she was even born, is now pursuing her degree in sociology with a minor in psychology.

With the support of PJ’s husband Jesse Wilson, whom she married in 2008, she decided to give it a go and reached out to her former advisor Dr. Ian Brown. PJ had recently seen all her former professors while working at the funeral of the father of Dr. Sam Peavy and casually mentioned to them her newfound desire to complete her four-year degree. They were delighted, and again, PJ was encouraged to go back to school and earn her bachelor’s degree. A quick phone call to Dr. Brown and an email to the department head Dr. Stephanie Harvey, and PJ had the short list of what she needed to finish: a physiology class, an additional upper division science class, and her senior seminar. 

It took PJ two years to finally pull the trigger, but in August 2021, she re-enrolled as a GSW student, 23 years after she originally started.

PJ graduated this spring with her Bachelor of Science in Biology. She isn’t sure where finishing her biology degree after 25 years will take her. Maybe nowhere new, as she isn’t interested in leaving the funeral home job that she adores. But that sense of accomplishment as she walked across the stage in her cap and gown, that sense of knowing that slow and steady pace had finally won the race…well, it won’t be the last gift she gives herself, but it may be one of the best. And doing it with her daughters by her side made it even better.