At 63 years old and after years of hard work, Cherie Carr had finally achieved her goal of earning a bachelor’s degree. She couldn’t wait to walk the stage at graduation.
Then, everything changed.
In the hospital three weeks ago for splitting headaches, shortness of breath and stomach pain, Carr got news no one wants to hear: Stage 4 cancer.
With cancer in her lungs, brain, liver, pancreas, gallbladder and colon, Carr has had to switch gears from being a summer intern with hopes to work in television production to focus all her energy on her health. Her sister, Vicki Snell, without hesitation uprooted her life in Kentucky to take care of Carr full time in Orlando: driving, cooking, cleaning and always being just one step behind to make sure Carr doesn’t fall. Walking at graduation seemed to be in jeopardy.
Yet, on Aug. 5, Carr donned her cap and gown and walked the stage at graduation – independently and with an expression of triumph on her face – to celebrate her hard-earned bachelor of arts degree in radio-television production. She hopes her determination can help inspire others to keep going.
“To those students who want to quit, they need to remind themselves that if I can finish with six pieces of cancer in me, they can do it, too,” she said. “We are Knights and we charge on.”
Carr, who’s now in hospice care, is expected to live another three to six months. She’s grateful she had the energy to make graduation “her last finish line.”
Her college journey began in 2010 out of a need to survive. In 2009 she had been laid off as a word processor for a law firm – a job she’d had for 16 years – and began struggling financially. She knew if she went back to school, she could live off of student loans. She enrolled in Seminole State College and that’s when an education became more than a means to survive – it became a passion and a goal.
“One way or another she was going to get that degree,” said Snell, who added that once Carr starts something, she gives it her all and wants to see it through.
“I had often wished that I started my life by going to college earlier,” Carr said. “But if you really want to do something, or you don’t like something and you want to change it, do it.”
Carr’s go-getter attitude helped her fit in with – and often outshine – the younger students who surrounded her throughout her college journey. After earning an Associate of Arts degree with a 4.0 GPA at Seminole State, she transferred to UCF to study what’s always been her hobby: TV and movies.
“It’s energetic, fun and creative,” Carr said of being behind the camera. “There are all kinds of areas to study and opportunities.”
For years Carr has put her studies to use at her church, First Baptist of Orlando, where in 2011 she became the church’s first and only woman jib operator. A jib is a crane with a camera at the top and a counterweight and controls at the bottom that’s used in cinematography. She also this summer interned at NBC Golf Channel in Orlando before her diagnosis.
“She is very dedicated and professional, and doesn’t accept mediocrity,” said Stephanie Rice, UCF associate instructor and radio-television program coordinator. “She’s a bit of a perfectionist because she wants her work to be her best. In my classes she never tried to make a case for being older or different than the other students. She was just there to learn.”
Close in age, Rice and Carr formed a bond outside the classroom. It began with “tough love,” said Rice, who’d critique Carr’s work when she visited her office to get tips on how to improve. Then over lunches and dinners, the two formed a friendship. Rice, a breast cancer survivor, has in recent weeks provided pivotal empathy and support for Carr. She even picked up her cap and gown from campus while Carr was in the hospital.
Rice also helped Carr get her summer internship at Golf Channel. Carr was worried her age would be a disadvantage when it came to landing internships, but Rice challenged that: “Your age is an asset. You have work experience and you’ve shown you don’t mind working hard for a living,” she said.
Carr was part of the studio production crew at the Golf Channel. She’d pull cables and help communicate directions from the control room to the studio floor, and eventually she operated the cameras.
Carr was born in Jamestown, Tenn., and has lived in the Orlando area since she was a teenager. Her brother and two nieces also previously graduated from UCF.