70-year-old graduate has highest grade point average in Social Work program

Bettye J. Burney credits faith, family support, and perseverance as she graduates with academic distinction

May. 2, 2018

A bachelor’s degree in social work is the latest achievement for 70-year-old Bettye J. Burney, who over a lifetime of hard work and determination has repeatedly made an impact in the world. She was notified yesterday that she has the highest grade point average of any student in the social work program, thanks in part to her indomitable energy. Her motto is “walk like you have somewhere to go.”

She is the mother of four and the grandmother of eight. Her early education took place in the two-room schoolhouse she attended until 1957. She grew up already familiar with Fort Valley State College; her high school was named after Ms. Tommie C. Calhoun, a former professor here.

She has worked toward this goal of attaining a college degree throughout her life. She was previously a secretarial major at the former Crandall Business College in Macon, GA, a business major at Mercer University, and an education major at the former Macon State College (Middle Georgia State University). With her degree, she aims to be a change maker. Her resilience, she believes, is central to her ability to accomplish her goals.

“When you dream big and think big, it’s never too late for a new beginning,” she said. “New beginnings are possible when you have the tenacity to accomplish any goal with perseverance by never giving up. Resilience is the key to pushing forward.”

Burney broke the color barrier in 1972 by becoming the first African American hired in the accounting and logistics department of the former Engelhard Corporation (now part of BASF). She was a substitute teacher for the Jones County school system, a member of the first Leadership Wilkinson Class, a former instructor for UGA’s Fanning Leadership, and was a representative for Wilkinson County on the Private Industry Council and Economic Development Board of Directors. She also served on the Board of Elections for over 12 years, held several offices with the Wilkinson County PTA, and served as the Wilkinson County Prevention Specialist for the former Baldwin County Council on Substance Abuse. She assisted her mother, the late Mary E. Philpot Whipple, in the establishment of the 441 bypass and is presently a candidate in the May 22 primary elections for the Wilkinson County, GA Board of Commissioners.

She’s had to overcome a lot to reach this point in her educational career, but her tenacity helped her continue moving forward. “I’ve had many adversities that hindered continuing my education and attaining a bachelor’s degree,” she said, “but through faith and encouragement from my husband, my mother, my children, and grandkids, I am where I am today with gratitude.”

Her next goal is to get more girls involved in her Girls to PEARLS mentoring program, in which the acronym “PEARLS” stands for perseverance, empathy, attentiveness, responsibility, leadership, and self-respect.