After spending last summer with my head barely above water as a graduate student at UCF, I was this close to giving up on my dream of earning a degree. My grandmother passed away from COVID-19. My father was diagnosed with severe heart problems that left him wearing a defibrillator. I was the sole financial provider for my household and had recently made a major decision to leave my fiancé of three years, the father to my second child and stay-at-home-caretaker for my two children. I felt trapped, but when the pandemic hit, I knew I had to make a change in my life.

My kids and I moved closer to friends and family for support and into a more affordable place. But my employer had sent us home to work remotely for the year and I was nowhere near used to being home with them 24/7 — on top of completing coursework. And then right before the start of the fall semester, I fell ill with the COVID-19 virus.

Luckily, after three weeks, I made it off the couch and got back to my studies. Thinking I was in the clear, I began my full-time course load and started back at work. COVID-19, however, wasn’t done with me. I suffered from fatigue, brain fog, and to this day colas still taste like mold and anything lemon-flavored tastes like celery. I don’t know if my sense of smell will ever be as good as it once was.

 I had to adjust my expectations, and I had to keep going because I couldn’t allow myself to give up again.

By Fall 2020, I was at a point where I almost quit school. But instead, I decided to scale things back. I dropped two courses, which meant I would have to take two capstone courses for two different master’s programs in the spring — on top of a public finance course. I failed a midterm. I was convinced I wasn’t going to pull it off. Even with taking just one course, I was barely hanging on. But ultimately, I had to be realistic with myself and my situation at that time. I had to accept that dropping a couple courses didn’t mean “I can’t do this;” it simply meant “I can’t do all of this right here and now, but I can still do it.” I had to adjust my expectations, and I had to keep going because I couldn’t allow myself to give up again.

One of the biggest motivators for me going back to school at UCF and sticking it out was my failed attempt at graduate school in 2014. I was a single mother of my first child, I had three jobs back then, and I couldn’t get financial aid. I borrowed money from a dear friend to pay off collections accounts so the government would allow me to take out loans. Then I began my first stab at graduate coursework with the Maryland Institute College of Art.

I put in a great amount of effort at first, but I couldn’t keep up. Back then, I was a victim of abuse. I allowed recent and dated traumas I had endured to define me and make me lose faith in myself and others. I grew up in a home where apologizing was a sign of weakness, and lived my life believing that asking for help meant I wasn’t strong enough. I dropped out of graduate school at the beginning of 2016, and I went back to thinking I just wasn’t capable.

In 2010, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college with my bachelor’s degree, and a dream of mine has always been to earn a doctorate degree. I wanted my children to see that perseverance and determination can take you anywhere you want to go. After the birth of my second child, I felt motivated to give graduate school another try. I didn’t want that first go at graduate school to be the end of my journey. I knew it would be harder the second time, as I now had a career and two kids, but I reminded myself that motherhood doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the things you want out of life. Motherhood just means you might have to try a little harder.

I knew it would be harder the second time, as I now had a career and two kids, but I reminded myself that motherhood doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the things you want out of life.

I enrolled in the nonprofit management and public administration graduate programs at UCF in 2018. I chose these programs because they were fully online, and they aligned with my career goals to one day lead a nonprofit arts organization or to work in the public sector developing arts and cultural programs and policies. Art has always been a part of my life, and I want to ensure that everyone has access to the arts and can benefit from all that experiencing arts and culture has to offer. Art has been a way for me to cope with childhood and early adulthood traumas. Now, rather than make art, I want to give back to the arts some of what the arts gave to me.

As I prepare to graduate, I find that I’ve learned a lot more than what was on the pages of my textbooks. I have learned to ask for help when I need it, and I accept help when it is offered to me. I learned that failing a midterm isn’t the end of the world. I learned that setting realistic expectations for yourself is the key to achieving your goals, and I learned to take things one step at a time. I learned that a little extra effort can go a long way. I learned that honesty really is the best policy — don’t be embarrassed or think any less of yourself if you must ask your professor for extra time to meet deadlines due to personal reasons. Learning to be open with my professors about my struggles and to communicate with them as soon as possible when I knew I was falling behind was my saving grace on my graduate school journey. These are lessons that will stick with me for life, and without these lessons learned, I most likely wouldn’t be graduating.

I am graduating for that friend that loaned me the money to start graduate school back in 2014 — and for the chance to prove I didn’t fail her.

I am graduating for my professors who granted me understanding, extensions and the support that allowed me to make it through every course without fail.

I am graduating for my fellow Knights — without you, I wouldn’t have made it this far.

I am graduating for my family and friends who have encouraged me all along the way. I am graduating for my children so they can see first-hand how far perseverance can take us in life.

I am graduating for Josh, the old flame who by some blip in the universe recently came back into my life during my final semester and spent many nights watching over my kiddos, making dinner and putting them to bed, while I locked myself in the bedroom to write a paper or take an exam.

I am graduating for anyone over 30 who thinks it’s too late. I am graduating for all those who are thinking they could never pull it off, who think they aren’t enough, who think they will fail before they even try.

I am graduating especially for the working mothers who think they can’t — because I know you can.

I am graduating no longer defining myself as a victim. I am graduating with self-worth. I am graduating for me.