Maria Jameson knows the remarkable power of a wish: the life-changing hope having a dream inspires even in the most desperate time.
A volunteer with the Make-A-Wish Foundation (Central and Northern Florida Chapter) for 10 years, Maria has helped make wishes come true for 32 children with life-threatening illnesses.
Wishes to travel to far-away places including Australia, Hawaii and Paris.
Wishes to meet idols such as Katy Perry, Tim Tebow and the Jonas Brothers.
And wishes for things most of us take for granted – a shopping spree or a computer.
All 32 children are etched forever in her memory.
There was 9-year-old Shania (pictured above) diagnosed with cerebral palsy who wanted to swim with dolphins.
Connor, diagnosed at 13 with Stage IV Ewing sarcoma, who dreamed of visiting Ireland.
Joe, a self-taught violinist diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of bone cancer at 15. Too weak to lift a pencil for 10 months, Joe dreamed of owning a professional violin. Maria helped make that dream come true with a violin he then played at a Carnegie Hall performance for family and friends.
"Watching my kids have a wish and hope to hold on to makes me feel very blessed indeed," says Maria. "Meeting so many wonderful wish kids and families has truly changed the way I see the world."
Accelerating her degree with a tenacious work ethic
For Maria, making wishes come true has often involved donning outrageous costumes to create memorable wish presentations.
And it has always required her to tap her seemingly inexhaustible energy, vast creativity and relentless commitment.
That same energy, creativity and commitment has enabled Maria to accomplish something many people dream of: a college degree.
With a successful 18-year marketing career to her credit, Maria decided that an online degree in business administration with a specialization in marketing would help her move into higher-level positions.
Due to an indefatigable work ethic, she also continued to manage national and Florida region marketing campaigns full-time for a technology company, continued her commitments to Make-A-Wish, and met the demands of a more than full-time course load.
According to her advisor, Oscar Lewis, Maria took three classes per term for seven of ten terms maintaining a cumulative GPA of 3.82, and will graduate with honors.
Here's some insight into how she did it.
What made you decide to go back to school?
Maria: I was ready to move up in my career, and I needed a degree to compete successfully against other candidates who already have a degree. Now I have the edge over the competition because of my degree and my extensive experience. I'm also ready to start a family and I want to be a better provider. Plus, I'm an avid reader. I really love learning.
Why did you choose an online degree program?
Maria: It was the option that best fit my schedule.
Why Saint Leo?
Maria: I am Catholic, so I liked the idea of attending a Catholic school. I liked that it was a private school and that the athletic department raises money for Make-A-Wish. I love the Saint Leo value system and the quality of the instructors. Saint Leo is also one of the few colleges that offers my specific degree online.
What are your career goals?
Maria: I want the brass ring. With my experience, I think a job as a vice president of marketing within five years is very attainable.
Did you have any concerns about going back to school?
Maria: After being out of the groove for so long, I wondered how good a student I would be. Turns out, the real-world work environment is an excellent spring board for school. I was already using critical-thinking and problem-solving skills daily in the workplace. I grasped even my least favorite subject, mathematics, more easily than I ever had before. The strategic plans and briefs I wrote for work helped me write better papers in school.
How did you like being a student again?
Maria: I loved it. I am a natural student. Eight years ago, I co-founded a group called Tampa VEGAs, which stands for Women with a Passion for Vision, Experience, Growth & Appreciation. We meet monthly to learn something new and push our personal boundaries. I've explored things like CPR, rock climbing, sign language and Bollywood dancing. I've had 84 new experiences that I might not have had if I didn't seek them out. If I'm not learning something new, I get antsy.
What has the online experience been like?
Maria: It has been a very positive experience. The biggest advantage was the flexibility that online learning offered. My schedule without school was already pretty intense. I needed a program that was completely flexible to meet the times I was available to get work done. Committing to a weekly time to attend a class was not an option.
How did you incorporate coursework and studying into an already packed week?
Maria: Typically I would do my reading during the week on my lunch break. If I had a paper to write, I would do all my prep on Wednesdays. Thursdays I would do the online discussions. The weekend is where I would do the bulk of my work. Putting in 12 hours on a Saturday was pretty typical because I would tackle two classes worth of work. Then on Sunday, I would do one. Keeping to a schedule made everything manageable.
Did you have any time for yourself?
Maria: I like to squeeze every possible productive minute out of any given day, so I thrived on this crazy schedule of going to school full time and a half, working full time, doing all the social media marketing for my fiancé's business, participating in VEGAs new experiences and volunteering for Make-A-Wish, and planning my wedding
No matter how much work I had to do, I usually had my evenings free to indulge in various social or family activities. I also indulged my creative outlet of tango and salsa dancing weekly.
I did make it a point to schedule vacations at the same time as my school breaks so I could completely recharge. That was the key to keeping my sanity with a tenacious schedule.
Why did you decide to accelerate your path to a degree?
Maria: I had my eyes locked on a goal, and I wanted to accomplish it quickly but with As. As long as my grades didn't suffer, I wanted to push myself to see exactly what I was capable of.
I started part time to see how I could handle the workload. I found it surprisingly doable so after a couple of semesters, I increased my credit hours to full time. Since I was able to integrate the workload fairly easily, after a few months, I increased my credit hours again to full time and a half.
What advice do you have for other students who may want to accelerate their degree programs?
Maria: If you want to do it, the rest of your life will find a way to fall into place. Adding one more class isn't adding that much more time to your schedule. After a few weeks, you find your groove and schedule that works best for you. I think people will be surprised that they will do better than they think they will.
Whom did you lean on for support?
Maria: For the most part, I kept my academic goals to myself because this was a very personal journey to me; like me against the mountain. After a while, only my close friends and family knew I went back to school. My advisor, Oscar Lewis, is the best. I have spoken to him weekly since I started because I not only value his opinions, but he became a friend and mentor. Now that I'm out of school, I call to talk to him about the master's program. We're still kicking it around.
Why and how did you get involved in Make-A-Wish?
Maria: In 2005 I realized I wanted to spend more of my free time giving back. Children's charities always touched my heart because I believe that no child should have to fight for their life before it has really had a chance to begin. I've always been a creative person, and I thought I could find unique ways to bring joy to children who had life-threatening illnesses. I wanted to help them get back to feeling like a kid again, even if it's only for a day. I contacted Make-A-Wish to learn how I could help, and the rest is history!
What's your current role with Make-A-Wish?
Maria: My role has grown as my love for this special charity has grown. I started out as a wish granter. Now I'm also a mission chair, ambassador and speaker. My first year as mission chair, we raised over $170,000 ($20,000 over budget) making the 2014 Walk for Wishes the most successful walk in the region. And our Night of the Iguana event raised over $120,000.
Why is Make-A-Wish so important to you?
Maria: It's just in my heart. I feel called to bring sunshine into the lives of kids who really need some hope. The smiles on their faces when they get their wishes come true is what it's all about. It feels a lot like being a fairy godmother! I love seeing my wish kids get better and grow up to be amazing people. One of my wish kids just started med school. One started Saint Leo last year. Many of them are giving back to Make-A-Wish and the community. It's a beautiful thing.
How do you manage everything going on in your life?
Maria: Under my shirt, I have a super hero suit with a big M for Mighty Maria on it! Seriously, there is a lot I want to accomplish, so I just make it happen. Keeping focused on the end result makes it easier.
What will you do with all your free time now that you have your degree?
Maria: It may sound strange but after going full speed ahead for the last three years, it's a challenge to adjust to all this free time right now. Thankfully I'm not without things to keep me busy like wrapping up the remaining details for my wedding and helping with my fiancé's business. It's in my nature to keep learning, find more projects to contribute to, grant more wishes, keep traveling the world, and plan for things I want to do in the future like raise kids, and perhaps get my master's degree. The sky's the limit!
What did it take for you to make your dream of earning a college degree come true? Share with us in the comments!
Image credits: Joe Pearl Photography and courtesy Maria Jameson