The subheader says Christine Parsons ’17. On May 7, she’ll become Christine Parsons ’17 ’22MS. But there’s so much more to Parsons than degrees and years. She’s a mom and a sister. She knows first-hand what it’s like to struggle in school and all-too-well how the struggle can lead to tragedy. There’s nothing traditional about the path she’s taking. And look here, she already has an impressive title at UCF: Program manager, Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute, which prepares and retains exceptional student education teachers who serve children and adults with special needs. The institute also collaborates with local partners provides services for families of students.

“I’m passionate about the work we’re doing, and now you know why,” Parsons wrote in an email.

Let’s dig into the “why,” circling briefly back to degrees. Parsons earned her first degree, an associate degree in medical laboratory technology, from Brookdale Community College (New Jersey) in 1979. In the 43 years between that degree and her master’s in interdisciplinary studies at UCF, she’s raised four children, had three careers, and is now weaving her lessons from life and school into a singular mission.

“I have this constant thought after seeing what my family members have gone through: We need to do better at educating every person,” says Parsons, whose voice resonates with the resolve of a mother and the hope of a researcher on the cusp of discovery. “Not one person should have his or her life diminished simply because we don’t know the best way to educate them. Not one.”

She has seen what can happen from every angle of her life.

Lessons from Her Mother

She was born and raised as Christine Williams, the oldest of two girls and three boys, an average student from a family of apparent average students, she says.

“School was hard for us,” she says. “We didn’t have much direction with our homework unless we were at my aunt’s house. I always knew I was smarter than my grades showed, and I wanted to learn, so it was frustrating.”

Her mom and dad divorced when all five kids were young, leaving mom to raise them on her modest wages working as a secretary during the day and typing labels at night. She couldn’t help with schoolwork because of her tiring schedule and for a reason no one knew about.

“Looking back,” Parsons says, “I can see that mom had such bad anxiety that she couldn’t even talk with teachers about school. I’m pretty sure it’s the reason she stopped going to college after one year.”

She and her siblings didn’t have the money or family guidance to go to a four-year college, so Christine went to Brookdale and began to “learn how to learn.”

“Those two years gave me confidence and opened doors to a career,” she says. “I made more money in my first year out of college than my mother was able to make with 15 years of experience. She could have done more, but the anxiety created barriers.”

Her mother wasn’t the only one in the family who would encounter life-altering obstacles in education.

Lessons from Her Brother

Parsons says she’s “living proof” of what it means to be a lifelong learner. She thrives on the challenge of thinking through problems and advancing solutions.

“A lot of people are better at figuring things out instead of downloading information and repeating it back. My middle brother, Michael, was an incredible landscaper. He’d look at a space, do the calculations in his head, and then come up with something beautiful. But growing up, the schools weren’t equipped to help with his problems.”

Michael could barely read. He could multiply three-digit numbers in his head, but when it came to written instructions or job applications, he was lost. The everyday frustrations drove him to alcohol and, eventually, to homelessness. In May 2020, Michael Gerard Williams, 53, died while sleeping in a homeless camp in New Jersey.

“My brother was big, energetic, and had so much potential,” Parsons says. “If someone had known in school that he needed help with reading, there’s no telling what he could have done. His life never should have gone the way it did.”

Lessons from Her Children

In her first career through the 1980s and early 90s, Parsons thought she had the best job ever. Officially, she was a “sales rep for cancer research and diagnoses.” The technology helped save lives and sold itself. Parsons just had to show pathology technicians how to use it. But at the end of 1997, with three sons at home and a daughter on the way, Parsons and her husband, Rick, decided to it would be best if she left the workforce so she could provide what she says her own mother couldn’t — help with schoolwork and attention to any signs of difficulty. When Tom was in third grade, he started failing. The school agreed something was wrong, but didn’t know what it was. Parsons did her own research and got the testing necessary to find the problem.

“It was the first time anyone in our family took a step toward finding answers,” Parsons says.

She found out Tom had auditory processing disorder. His brain, like many, is wired in a way that interprets sounds differently and delays a response. Though it appears on paper to be an auditory condition, it often pairs with learning deficiencies, being easily distracted, and social challenges that can lead to a life of negative feedback and loneliness.

Like so many learning disabilities, auditory processing disorder creates problems no one really understands except the person who has it … or the parent trying to help.

Parsons would not accept the advice to “let Tom figure it out.” She’d seen where that can lead. She helped him with a special reading program, hired a tutor, and by his freshman year of high school Tom could read at a college level. In 2015 he graduated from UCF with a degree in political science.

In the meantime, Christine also found out that her second son, Tim, is dyslexic. So, she enrolled him into a high school with a specialized technology program. Tim would earn a degree in digital media from UCF in 2017, the same year Christine completed her bachelor’s in science education.

A third son, Stephen, tested positive at a young age for food allergies, which can affect a person’s ability to focus. By this time, Parsons knew her way around learning barriers. Stephen graduated from high school in 2014, enlisted in the U.S. Marines, and went on to firefighting school.

“Finding the right fit is crucial,” Parsons says.

Her youngest child, Sara, is on track to graduate from UCF in 2023 with a double major in art and engineering.

“School has never been hard for her,” Parsons says, “but that doesn’t make her more ‘normal.’ We all have quirks. It’s important to understand what they are and provide direction so each person can thrive.”

This is the driving force in her work at the Toni Jennings Institute. Parsons adds her lessons from life to the team’s research on Project FOCUS, which will develop a way to evaluate students for deficits in executive functions (everyday skills like following a schedule, remembering instructions, and having goals) and provide solutions they can use throughout life.

“Project FOCUS could have changed my brother’s life,” Parsons says. “He suffered and didn’t know why. No child … no person … should feel lost, isolated, constantly criticized, or like they don’t belong simply because we don’t understand.

“And then think about the kids whose families can’t afford a specialist. What happens to them? What are we losing as a society?”

On May 8, the day after her graduation, Parsons’ children will be home for Mother’s Day to celebrate. The weekend will be not so much a culmination as it will be a time to catch her breath and enjoy the family.

“They’re my inspiration,” she says.

A day later she’ll continue pushing forward, motivated by thoughts of her mother, sons and brother.

“I think about my brother every single day,” she says. “He could have been amazing. I’m doing this work because I don’t want anyone else to be left thinking ‘what could have been.’ ”