Carol Cuffee is not the type of person who gives up.
Born prematurely at 3 pounds, Carol was so tiny that even her father, a minister, had trouble believing that she could pull through. She came home from a Savannah hospital in an incubator, but every time the wind blew, the power went out to the very machine that was keeping her alive. Her mother, however, refused to give up on her little girl and held tightly to her faith that she would survive.
Carol keeps that faith today, carrying it through the twists and turns her life has taken in her career, motherhood and health.
She kept it when she was deployed to Afghanistan and when she endured open heart and breast cancer surgeries.
She kept the faith as she raised three children – plus cared for a niece and nephew she had temporary custody of – as a single mother.
It was faith that enabled her to create a loving home that became a refuge for young adults who encountered problems within their own homes. "Some were with us for days and others for weeks or months at a time," said Carol. "I never turned anyone away."
And it was that strong faith that enabled her to persevere in reaching her educational goals and completing Saint Leo's online criminal justice degree program in May with honors.
Her determination is one of the qualities that made Carol, 58, stand out as a candidate for the Dr. Michael Rogich Endowed Center for Online Learning Student Award. The university surprised her with the award at a small ceremony before commencement this spring.
About the Rogich Award
The award is named for Dr. Rogich, a professor in the Computer Science and Information Systems Department in Saint Leo's Donald R. Tapia School of Business. Before Dr. Rogich joined the full-time faculty, he directed the Center for Online Learning for a decade, helping to develop it as a convenient method to deliver rigorous, high-quality degree programs for students at any location worldwide.
The financial award is presented annually to an outstanding online student who faced significant challenges to meet his or her goal of a university degree. Carol said learning of the honor was an emotional experience that shocked and touched her.
"I know deep within that I am not the only student who had to overcome obstacles and press forward to continue with their studies and graduate from Saint Leo," Carol said.
Carol's criminal justice degree with a specialization in homeland security steers her back to a field that originally interested her growing up. At her first college in Savannah, she dreamed of becoming an FBI agent. But her school didn't offer those types of courses so she enrolled in administrative and secretarial courses.
She deferred her of earning a college degree, as she immersed herself in being a mother, wife, Naval Reservist, private investigator and then successful legal secretary.
While stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Carol learned about Saint Leo and began taking courses on the base through one of the university's military partnerships. She also decided to go on active duty with the Navy to create a better life for her family.
When Carol moved to Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia in 2011, she wanted to "jump right back into school," but the closest Saint Leo site was an hour away. Since she was also working full time, online classes provided the best route to a degree. Ready to enroll, she deployed to Afghanistan, but vowed that when she returned she would go back to school.
Pressing forward through health challenges
Carol followed through on that promise to herself when she returned to Georgia in 2013, but confronted yet another obstacle: breast cancer.
Carol had first faced cancer in 2002, undergoing five rounds of chemotherapy and 48 sessions of radiation. The radiation damaged her heart valve, and she had surgery in 2010 to repair it. To treat her second cancer diagnosis, she had a total mastectomy and four cycles of chemotherapy.
"It was hard pressing forward, but I kept telling myself that if I did not attempt to put one foot in front of the other, I would never make any progress," Carol said. "I would remain in the same spot."
Despite health struggles, she remained committed to completing her degree. Apprehensive about the switch to online learning, she found encouragement through her Saint Leo enrollment counselor who assured her she would excel.
And her counselor was right.
"Once I got started, the process just flowed and became a normal routine," Carol said. Instructors were always available to answer questions, and her Saint Leo student advisor, Donna Bleiler, was with her at every step, ensuring she registered for classes on time and providing support when Carol was going through cancer surgeries and treatments.
Carol's children and grandchildren in Virginia and Texas call her their inspiration. She and her oldest grandchildren had studied together when she was living in Virginia, and they agreed to always support each other.
"When I returned from Afghanistan and decided to connect with school but found out about my cancer, my grandchildren and I made a vow to never give up. No matter what."
Paying it forward
With her degree in hand, Carol continues to take each day and each struggle as they come. She expects to retire from the military in January 2018 and dreams of working for the Department of Homeland Security. One day, she would like to open a shelter to help people who are homeless, providing them with necessities such as haircuts, counseling and employment strategies.
When she first received the Rogich Award, Carol thought she would use the $500 to treat herself to something special. By the time she returned to Georgia, she had other ideas.
"I decided to share my blessing, and I split the proceeds and paid it forward for some persons in need," Carol said.
"Believe me, paying it forward for others blessed me ever so much."
What inspires you to keep moving forward toward your degree despite challenges?
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Photos courtesy Carol Cuffee