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True grit: Three graduates who never gave up in their pursuit of a college degree

These three graduates never gave up in their pursuit of a college degree

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Getting a college degree isn’t easy for anyone.

Exams, essays, research projects, impossible assignments, demanding teachers, late nights and occasional bouts with self doubt confront everyone. Perseverance is a prerequisite.

Circumstances also can intervene, placing meddlesome and occasionally serious roadblocks unrelated to school in the way. Sometimes, the greatest challenges take place outside of the classroom. Sometimes, getting to college is the toughest part.

That’s why graduation day always holds a special power. The obstacles have been cleared and the prize finally captured. All of the hard work has reaped its reward.

VCU will hold fall commencement exercises on Dec. 14 at the Siegel Center, honoring approximately 2,600 graduates from August and December.

The stories below highlight just three of the thousands of stories of great resolve among VCU’s newest graduates.

 

Peter Olatuyi

It seemed like a bad cosmic joke, blind fate having a laugh at someone’s expense. If it was a plot point in a movie, audiences might find the timing “a bit much” or “too on the nose,” the manipulative hands of the screenwriter ripping good fortune away from a character right when things seemed brightest.

It was Nov. 9, 2012, and Peter Olatuyi was nearing the end of the fall semester of his senior year in the VCU School of Business when he earned an interview for a paid internship he badly wanted at Accounting Accuracy, a Richmond-based accounting firm. Olatuyi, who was majoring in finance, was eager to gain experience in the field, so that he could pursue a career as an underwriter following graduation in the spring. It was an internship that Olatuyi, who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in 2009, saw as an excellent potential stepping stone.

The interview went great. He knew he’d nailed it. His interlocutor told him that the position was his. It was a Friday, and they wanted him back in the office on Monday to get started.

He left the office for his car, which he’d parked on the street near Accounting Accuracy’s West Main Street office. He felt buoyant and proud. As he put his key into the car door, he heard a scream and a screech, and he looked up to discover an out-of-control car veering toward him.

Stuck with no time to run or place to hide, Olatuyi leapt into the air, pulling himself onto the top of his car as best as he could. His left leg, however, trailed beneath him, and the careening car slammed into it, pinning the leg decisively against Olatuyi’s vehicle. The leg remained there, sandwiched between the cars, until rescue crews arrived. The pain was excruciating.

Olatuyi’s left tibia was crushed in four places. Surgery was performed immediately. Olatuyi worried that he wouldn’t walk again.

He was hospitalized for a week and a titanium rod was inserted from his knee to his ankle. The doctor told him with good luck and a lot of work he’d be walking without aid in six months.

Even after his release he was homebound, wobbly with the lingering effects of the injury and the potency of the painkillers he required. An entire semester’s classes were rendered incomplete, a month from the finish line, and the dream internship tabled.

His car was totaled in the accident, and his phone and computer were destroyed. He had picked up steep medical bills and realized he would be paying tuition beyond May.

Olatuyi, however, declined to feel sorry for himself. For one thing, it’s not in his nature. Olatuyi had a religious upbringing and finds strength in his faith. He also was raised on inspirational books passed along by his father, and he’s maintained the practice of reading them, hungrily seeking out volumes that motivate and push him. The books stick with him – he memorizes phrases and advice from them – and comfort him when he needs it. He leaned on them and his faith during the difficult recovery.

In addition, he knew he would not be recovering alone. Not only did he receive immediate and extensive support from friends, family and members of his church, but he also was the recipient of a steady stream of reinforcement from VCU faculty and administrators, particularly from the School of Business.

“Their help meant a lot to me,” Olatuyi said. “They provided so much encouragement. A lot of people were praying for me.”

Darlene Ward Thompson, associate director of business career services, had helped Olatuyi land his internship interview. She’s worked with him steadily since his sophomore year on his career plans. Thompson said Olatuyi received such widespread support because he so freely provides it.

“People wanted to help Peter because he’s always making a point of helping others,” Thompson said. “He’s that kind of person.”

Thompson was the first familiar face Olatuyi saw in the hospital. She rushed there with her contact at Accounting Accuracy, and she notified Olatuyi’s family.

She has watched Olatuyi’s attitude in his recovery with pride. That first time she saw him at the hospital she was worried for him. “I would have thought everything was over for him,” she said. His quick shift to a focus on solutions and regaining what he’d lost was absent of self-pity.

“He was about regrouping and seeing what the next step was going to be,” Thompson said.

Olatuyi attacked physical therapy with relish. By the third week in January – the opening of the spring semester – he was back on campus, on crutches, taking classes despite fogginess and problems with concentration from his medications. Accounting Accuracy had held his internship position open, and he began to work there, too.

His friends drove him to campus and his internship and helped him around the apartment. For Olatuyi, a relentlessly active person who typically can’t sit still, the time alone in his apartment and the dependence on others for simple errands and tasks was as difficult as the physical pain. He even ceded the reins on the leadership of the two organizations – Collegiate 100 of VCU, a mentorship organization, and Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences at VCU – that he had founded on campus and had steered as president.

Gradually, things got better. He was walking without crutches by April, a month earlier than hoped. His focus returned. He was frustrated not to graduate in May – the date he’d long targeted for entering the working world – but he shrugged it off and trained his attention on his summer classes.

And, when this November rolled around – the one-year anniversary of the accident – Olatuyi was down to the final two classes he needed for his degree. He also was working again with Thompson on the pursuit of a job, this time a full-time one. He attracted the interest of a national company interested in possibly hiring him as an underwriter in training – his dream job.

An initial interview last month went great, and he will travel to New York for a second interview this week. Olatuyi thinks the accident will help him stand out among applicants because his recovery has demonstrated an ability to fight through obstacles. And, he said, he had learned something through the process.

“I think people who have had to face challenges and overcome them are more ready to succeed than those who have not,” he said. “Challenges are an opportunity to bring out something great in yourself.”

Now, when Olatuyi looks back on the accident that interrupted his college career and stalled his careful plans, he feels appreciation. Not just for the lessons he learned and the strength he feels for having climbed out of the hole he’d fallen into, but also because he heard the car before it reached him and instead of freezing in shock he thought to grab hold of something and pull himself up. His leg, he notes now, was the only part of him that was crushed.

“I am blessed to have survived this horrific experience,” he said. “I got lucky.”

At commencement, he’ll walk onto the Siegel Center floor – without a limp.

 

Abigail Banks

It’s become a routine shared by Abigail Banks and her mother. Banks will participate in an activity or event at VCU, assume a new leadership role or mark another academic achievement, and her mother will wrap her arms around her and speak into her ear, “Did you ever think you’d be doing this?” And they’ll both laugh, because they know the answer is, “No.”

The truth is that neither Banks nor anyone else imagined she might have the kind of experience she’s had at VCU or that she would accomplish half of what she has accomplished. It’s not that Banks was never capable. She just hadn’t been able to settle on a path for herself. For that reason, few are as appreciative as Banks is of the opportunities the university provides.

“It’s been great to see my progression and my development into the person I feel like I’m supposed to be,” Banks said. “And it’s all because of VCU.”

Six years ago, Banks was a senior at Monacan High School. She was a strong student and active in the humanities honor program, the show choir and the dance team. She’d been accepted to VCU and planned to become the first person in her family to graduate from college.

However, she began to drift into what she now calls “the wrong crowd” and to engage in behavior that interfered with her education. Then, two months before she was due to get her diploma, she dropped out of school, her previous priorities lost to her. Banks suddenly found herself without a plan for the future.

Fortunately, Banks reversed course promptly. She shed her questionable influences and earned her high school degree through an online Catholic high school, buckling down to a senior year’s worth of work in two packed summer months. Two years at John Tyler Community College followed – a time that she views today as critical because it provided her both a time to learn academically and a time “to grow up,” living in an apartment on her own, working at a job and going to classes.

Still, she struggled to identify what she wanted to do with her life, as many young people before her have done. She enrolled in a massage therapy institute and a year later became a certified massage therapist. She enjoyed her work, particularly the chance it gave her to make people who were hurting feel better. Somehow, though, she wasn’t feeling fulfilled.

Banks decided that VCU was her chance to find that missing satisfaction, and she applied and was accepted. A few years later than originally planned, she would begin her bid for a bachelor’s degree.

When she arrived at VCU in the spring of 2011 as a 23-year-old sophomore, she readily acknowledges – in an essay she’s written about her experiences – “I was the biggest dork on campus, decked head to toe in VCU gear, with my backpack the size of a turtle shell and my map laminated and posted to my huge planner. But I was excited; I was ready to finally realize my potential.”

She hit the ground running. She learned of the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, and gravitated there, inspired in part by an introduction to women’s rights class she’d taken and loved at John Tyler. She found the department was the right academic home for her.

In the fall of 2011, Banks was recruited to join a sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, which would be colonizing a new chapter on campus. She not only joined but soon became president of the chapter.

She was a natural fit in a leadership position. She was energized by the responsibility and the sense that her sorority sisters were looking to her to make decisions and solve chapter problems. She even enjoyed all of the feedback and complaints and expectations.

She liked the experience so much that she sought a greater weight on her shoulders. She ran for and won the presidency of the College Panhellenic Council at VCU, the governing board for eight National Panhellenic Conference organizations at the university. In addition to helping to oversee programs and policies for the member organizations, Banks serves as a liaison between the Greek organizations and university administrators and offices.

“It’s been great – the relationships, having a voice on campus, working closely with campus leaders,” said Banks, who is also a member of Omicron Delta Kappa, a national leadership fraternity, and the Order of Omega Honor Society. “It’s been really rewarding.”  

Her leadership activities have not distracted her from her academic pursuits. Banks will graduate this month with a major in gender, sexuality and women’s studies and a minor in psychology. She’s earned dean’s list in all but one semester while at VCU.

Liz Canfield, Ph.D., an assistant professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, said Banks has been a joy to teach, calling her sense of humor and high energy personality “fabulous and infectious.”

“Abigail has been able to balance a highly active extracurricular life while also doing very well in school,” Canfield said. “She is truly dedicated to VCU and the surrounding community, which is evident in the work that she does. She has eagerly taken on every challenge that has come up for her. Her school spirit comes through in very genuine ways.”

Canfield said Banks also is open and accessible with her peers and never judgmental. “Other students find it easy to talk with her,” she said.

Banks revels in the social aspect of college. She knows she’s only a few years older than her peers, but she feels protective of them, like “a mother hen,” she said. It’s a natural inclination that stems in part from her experience helping to care for her special needs sister, Rachel, growing up. In turn, many of her friends at VCU call her “Mom,” which she loves.

“I really look up to them,” Banks said. “All these young women doing so much at such a young age. It’s fun to be around them.”

Banks graduates VCU with the kind of firm plans she once lacked. She has landed an internship at a local law firm and hopes to eventually attend law school and become a civil rights attorney. She’d like to advocate for women’s rights and to help victims of domestic violence. She’d also like to have “a huge family. The kids are all going to be future VCU students.”

Banks has no doubts that the route she took to her degree was the right one for her. If she’d simply gone directly from high school to VCU, she thinks she wouldn’t have been ready to dive into extracurricular activities, become a leader and thrive academically. The five years between her acceptance to VCU and her arrival on campus were necessary for her to get the most out of her time at the university.

“I had a different perspective on what higher education could be because of that time,” Banks said. “It made my experience here so much more enriching.”

 

Casie O’Neil

Every day in his Zen Buddhism class, Clifford Edwards, Ph.D., professor of philosophy and religious studies at VCU, would look to the front row and see Casie O’Neil, tired and fighting to stay alert – yet never hiding. He knew she may have gotten only a couple of hours of sleep before class, if any at all, because her full-time job as a security guard often put her on the overnight shift. He knew the class material was proving difficult for her, but he also knew that she was determined to learn it.

“She’d come visit me to talk, but never to complain,” Edwards said. “It was always to try to understand something from class. Never did she complain about her difficult circumstances. With her it was, ‘I want to understand the material, and I want to do well.’ And that was it.”

O’Neil tackled college late in life – she turned 50 this year – becoming a full-time VCU student while working full time and raising a teenage son as a single mother. At times, the schedule seemed impossible. She would work a late shift in her job – either 4 p.m. to midnight or midnight to 8 a.m. – and then study as much as she could and sleep as little as she could, before heading to a day of classes. She often would go straight from work to campus, or from classes to the library and then to work, and she became well-acquainted with the Cabell Library’s cleaning crew, who seemed to appreciate O’Neil’s steadfastness as they encountered her and her good cheer day after day, still clad in her security guard uniform and studying with her books laid out before her.

O’Neil is proud of her books and what they signify. Some attend college later in life to improve their earning power, but O’Neil wasn’t seeking a boost in her income but in her knowledge. During those hours in the library, she liked to imagine her name listed among the famous scholars she was reading.

“I love my books,” she said. “I love holding them and looking at them and reading them.”

O’Neil grew up in the Mosby Court neighborhood of Richmond with eight siblings and a single mother. Attending college was never something she considered after high school. However, she embarked on a successful career, serving as a guard in the correctional system for 17 years and eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. She later shifted fields to become a security guard so she could work in a job closer to home in Richmond and her son, Boise.

Increasingly, through those years of work, a feeling nagged at O’Neil that she wasn’t done with school yet. There was more she needed to learn.

In 2006, she started taking classes at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. It was a struggle from the start. She felt intense pressure and anxiety. Tests and presentations were torture. She was occasionally reduced to tears and even suffered a mini-stroke in the classroom one day.

And yet she was thrilled by what she learned and by the empowerment each completed class gave her. She grew more and more confident.

In 2010, she enrolled at VCU. She adjusted gradually, assuming a full courseload while maintaining her regular schedule at work. She eventually decided to major in religious studies in the School of World Studies, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences. The subject interested her deeply and represented the kind of opportunity for knowledge she’d long wanted.

“We never heard anything about Buddhism in the projects, “O’Neil said. “We didn’t know what it meant to be Catholic. I never understood the different religions. I didn’t know about the different types, but I always had these questions.”

O’Neil’s frequent seeking out of Edwards for support was not unusual. She often visited her teachers for additional help and haunted the learning center and writing center in University College for tutoring and guidance writing papers. She hadn’t waited decades to attend college to just to get by. She wanted to learn as much as she could.

As a result, O’Neil became more and more attached to VCU and to the people who helped her on a daily basis.

In April, O’Neil learned she had breast cancer. She was devastated. She soon sought comfort by sharing the news with the people she saw every day on campus. She cried with them and found solace in their responses and support. She was hugged, encouraged and met with offers of help. That first day she revealed her illness, she said, she found herself being embraced by people she hadn’t known moments before.

“VCU has become my family,” O’Neil said. “The help I’ve gotten from the people here has meant everything to me.”

Cancer threatened not only O’Neil’s health but also her plans to graduate. She still needed two classes over the summer to wrap up her studies. She had surgery in April, and six weeks of radiation treatments ran through the summer. Despite medical orders to take a break from work and school, she pushed forward through her two final classes and kept walking her rounds at her security post, even as radiation sapped her energy further.

“I had to finish,” O’Neil said. “I’d been working too many years to let anything stop me.”

Despite her challenging circumstances during her time at VCU, O’Neil said she never resented the other students and the opportunities she wished she’d had when she was younger. The nearest to frustration she felt at her circumstances, she said, was her prickly annoyance that her brimming schedule prevented her from ever getting to sit in the student section for a basketball game.

O’Neil enjoyed the dynamic of being the oldest student in the classroom and learning from her much younger classmates. She felt that she could offer a different perspective than others – one that could enhance discussions. She loved when debates became candid and opinions were traded assertively – when people “stuck to their guns.” It was the kind of atmosphere she’d imagined she’d find in a college classroom. Participating in those talks “made me feel strong and good about myself,” she said.

“I think I really bonded with a lot of the younger students,” O’Neil said. “They were great to me.”

O’Neil feels guilty about the long hours at school and at work that kept her from her son. However, he’s been her biggest cheerleader through the entire experience, and they’d often study together at the dining room table. She knows her example was important to him. She hopes that the single-minded way that she pursued a college education will help light the way for him as he considers his own educational future. He’s in his senior year of high school. She simply wants him to know what’s possible.

“If I could do it, anybody could do it,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil would like to one day open a community religious studies center in Church Hill that serves as a resource for people who have not been exposed to a diversity of religions. She’d like for the center to be a special place of interest for young people, particularly because she believes she would have benefited from that kind of knowledge when she was younger.

Her recovery from cancer is going well, she said. She’s taken up water aerobics at the YMCA since she finished classes in the summer, and she feels better and stronger. She never misses work.

O’Neil insists that she’s only one of many who have juggled countless responsibilities and demands to earn a college degree. However, she can’t help but reflect on the past three years with wonder.

“I look back at it now,” she said. “And I can’t believe I did that.”

 

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