Rogich Award recipient says continuing her online studies during her battle with cancer would not have been possible without the support of her academic advisor.

Before he passed away in 2002, Kim Jackson's grandfather would often remind her, "Nobody hurts their eyes by looking at the bright side of things."

Little did Kim know at the time, the words would become her mantra one decade later as she faced the toughest battle of her life.

Kim, who recently completed Saint Leo University's online accounting degree program and is now enrolled in the university's online master of accounting program, received this year's Dr. Michael Rogich Endowed Center for Online Learning Student Award. The award is presented annually to an outstanding online student who had to overcome significant obstacles while pursuing a college degree.

"For someone else to think that what I went through was tough means a lot," says Kim. "I know it was very heartfelt."

Everything was normal until the diagnosis

Kim, now 30, transferred to Saint Leo in 2011 to pursue a bachelor's in accounting after earning her associate degree. Married, with a young child and full-time responsibilities as the office manager of her family's road construction business in Lecanto, Fla., Kim had a lot on her plate.

When she noticed a growth under her chest in 2013, Kim made an appointment with her general practitioner, who diagnosed an inflammation and prescribed steroids. But as the growth became painful and began to protrude, Kim suspected something more – as did her chiropractor, who ordered an MRI.

Still, Kim wasn't waiting for the news she would receive following at a cancer center in Tampa: lymphoma.

"Everyone told me not to worry; they said it would be benign," says Kim, who had lost an aunt to cancer just one month earlier.

Had to go on

"It was hard, but I had to go on," she says. "The hardest part was thinking about my son and my husband."

But, she adds, "I believe God gives challenges to those who can handle it."

Planning for the journey ahead – six rounds of chemotherapy over 18 weeks, followed by 28 days of radiation – Kim took just one semester off, before returning to her studies part-time.

That's when her advisor, Renelda Merzius, stepped in to help.

Grateful for her advisor

"It wasn't easy to tell Renelda, but I came to a point where I had no choice," Kim says, admitting she has never been one to ask for help.  

"Renelda – thank the Lord for her – went through all the classes I needed with me and got every syllabus so we could determine what I could manage," Kim recalls.

The classes, like her job, helped keep Kim focused.

"If I would have stopped my life, I wouldn't have made it," she says. "Doing work, reading and having things I had to do kept my brain going when they were putting the chemicals in me."  

For Kim, each round of chemo lasted an entire day, followed by a day of recovery, and, typically, a hospital stay in isolation the following week due to a low white blood cell count. Days after her chemo ended in December 2013, Kim began 28 days of radiation with only weekends off.

"When I was in the hospital and couldn't get hold of my professors, Renelda would contact them for me. She always let them know at the start of the semester what I was dealing with," Jackson recalls.

"Without her, there was no way I would have continued."

The hardest part

The hardest part, Kim says, was "keeping the will and the drive to continue what I was doing."

But she was determined to not let her son, Trent, now 4, see her fail.

"My husband, Tom, became 'Mr. Mom'; he became everything. And my parents and family stood by me through everything. They were amazingly supportive."

An unexpected email

With her treatment ended in February 2014, and her bachelor's degree clearly in sight, Kim continued to focus on her studies – completing her program and looking forward to spring commencement, while still working full time at the family business.

Two days before graduation, Jackson received an unexpected email from Saint Leo notifying her that she was a finalist for the Rogich award. The annual 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, who directed the Center for Online Learning for 10 years prior to joining the faculty full time.

At graduation, Kim would learn that she was more than a finalist; she had been chosen to receive the award.

"I was surprised that somebody else thinks I did something good," she says, uncomfortable with the attention. "To me, every person goes through tough times; I'm no different than anyone else.

"When I reach a mountain, I climb over it."

No time to slow down

Days after receiving the award, Kim embarked on the next phase of her academic journey: an online master's degree in accounting from Saint Leo.

She hopes to one day become a forensic accountant in county or state government, uncovering crimes like the embezzlement, which affected her family's business during her cancer journey.

Wherever life takes her one thing is certain, Kim will always remember her grandfather's words and look at the bright side of things.

"I absolutely live by it," she says. "I live by those words."

Congratulations, Kim, and all 2015 graduates!

Image credits: Courtesy Kim Jackson