Reaching out

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KSU alum and ‘Phenomenal Woman’ gives back to the place that changed everything When…

Georgia (Mar 17, 2011)

KSU alum and ‘Phenomenal Woman’ gives back to the place that changed everything

When Johnnetta McSwain left Birmingham, Ala., at age 30, she says she was literally running for her life. She came to Atlanta with two young sons and a background riddled with horrific sexual, physical and emotional abuse. She was equipped with nothing but a GED and a 10-year plan that included becoming the first in her family to receive a college degree.

“I needed something new, something refreshing,” said McSwain. “I needed a totally new mental and physical environment. Somehow I was aware that if I wanted different results, I’d have to do something different in my life.”

Doing something different meant entering KSU in January 2003 and receiving her bachelor’s degree in communications in just three years. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in policy and administration at Clark Atlanta University. The doctorate was part of that infamous 10-year plan that McSwain hatched in Birmingham, a personal goal and a message to her boys that anything is possible. She hopes to use her credentials to help change public policy on domestic violence and child abuse.

In 2009, McSwain was the recipient of the Phenomenal Woman award, given annually to an outstanding woman by the Siegel Institute for Leadership, Ethics & Character at KSU. This year she will speak at the institute’s Phenomenal Women’s Conference at KSU Center on April 8. McSwain will conduct a workshop based on the 12 Step Self Awareness Model (SAM) that she created to help other women break the cycle of poverty and abuse.

“The model was designed to help women become self-aware of their negative behavioral cycles,” said McSwain. “These are the cycles that can cripple women and keep them from reaching their fullest potential in life.”

McSwain, who was one of the subjects of a 2009 Emmy award-winning PBS documentary titled “The Road Beyond Abuse,” now calls herself author as well as college graduate. She recently published a memoir titled “Rising Above the Scars.” She wonders at this turn of events, since writing was not one of her strong suits at KSU but something that she worked hard to improve with the help of her professors, study partners, the KSU writing lab and flat-out stubborn diligence. She wrote the book and published it herself because she wanted to share her message with as many women as possible.

“Sometimes we, as women, feel like we have to wait to do things. Wait? Why? For what?” said McSwain. “This book is something I can leave behind with a woman who needs to hear my story and needs to know that she’s not alone, that there is hope. It was hard to write. It was hard to relive things that happened to me, but I had to tell that story in my own words.”

McSwain is also a speaker and founder of the organization Breaking the Cycle, Beating the Odds. To further accomplish her goal of reaching women, she is developing a five-part DVD seminar series that she says will answer the two most-asked questions she gets: “How do I get there?” and “How do I stay there?” The series will be taped at KSU in front of a live audience.

The annual Phenomenal Women’s Conference gathers women of all backgrounds to exchange ideas about women’s issues and the roles of women leaders. This year’s conference will take place on April 8 at KSU Center. Carol Hunstein, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, will deliver the opening keynote address. The conference theme is “Women Leading in the New Millennium,” and the conference will feature speakers, a panel discussion, workshops and a networking lunch, where the recipient of the 2011 Phenomenal Woman Award will be announced.

For more information about this year's Phenomenal Women's Conference, click here.

- Erica Rountree


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit