Overcoming a lifetime of obstacles to earn a college degree, Anissa McLaurin is grateful Saint Leo professors wouldn't let her quit.

Anissa McLaurin started down the path to a college degree in the traditional way – as a 17-year-old right out of high school.

The journey for the now mother of three, however, has been a long one, marked by multiple starts and stops and replete with tremendous personal challenges.

Financial difficulties. Emotional issues. An eating disorder. A severe back injury. Children with mental illness. Divorce.

It's no wonder Anissa, the child of alcoholic parents who grew up in the projects outside of New York City, thought she'd never see the day she would complete a college degree.

But while hardship might have slowed her progress, the end is clearly in sight.

At the age of 46, Anissa is on track to finish her online sociology program later this year.

She credits faith, perseverance and hard work for her success, as well as the Saint Leo University professors, staff and fellow students who refused to let her give up.

The college dream begins

Anissa always wanted to attend college. Her family and the community in public housing encouraged her to pursue an education and create a better life for herself.

Her grandmother instilled in her the value of faith, taking Anissa to church every Sunday. And, along with her aunt, a switchboard operator, taught Anissa by example what it meant to have a strong work ethic, cleaning homes and taking care of children. Anissa saw firsthand how hard the women worked and the respect they showed their co-workers and bosses.

"My grandmother made me understand the responsibility of being a woman, of being a mother, and being the leader of your home, no matter what interruptions happen around you. You have to do the things that mothers do to take care of your family."

A dream interrupted

A strong student in high school, Anissa enrolled at the University of Maryland right after graduation. She completed two semesters but couldn't afford to continue and didn't have the support and guidance she needed to navigate the financial aid process.

Instead, Anissa returned to her New York-area home. She attended vocational school, becoming a medical assistant and then a licensed practical nurse.

Over the years Anissa worked, married, raised a family, divorced and moved to Florida amidst continuing hardship and heartbreak. As her three children—who are now age 26, 20 and 13—grew older, Anissa became increasingly concerned about how her two sons would function and contribute to society as adults. Both boys had been diagnosed with mental illness: one with schizoaffective disorder and the other with autism,

Nonetheless, Anissa still yearned to finish what she had started years earlier and earn a bachelor's degree.

She enrolled in college again, but the school's on-campus only mode of course delivery didn't mesh well with working and caring for her family. So for the second time, Anissa put college back on hold.

And then – nine years later – she found Saint Leo.

"Saint Leo wouldn't let me quit."

Anissa began her journey at Saint Leo during what she calls "a perfect storm of events."

In 2011, a friend told her about Saint Leo's online degree programs. Realizing she had plateaued at her current position as a dialysis technician, and knowing one of her son's was getting the care he needed at a state mental hospital, Anissa started Saint Leo's online sociology degree program.

But the hurdles to her education didn't stop.

One of her sons became ill. Anissa needed back surgery.

She was ready to finally give up her quest for a degree altogether, but her Saint Leo professors wouldn't let her give up.

"They said I couldn't quit. They said, 'We'll figure it out. What do we need to do to support you, to get you through the end of the semester?'" recalls Anissa.

"I never received that kind of support from any other institution. The faculty, my peers, my advisor – I can't even speak highly enough of the support I've gotten from all sides. I never thought I'd see this day when I'm finally close to finishing."

Online program provides "comfort in chaos"

Anissa kept in constant communication with her professors to let them know about her medical and family issues. Saint Leo's online course delivery enabled her to continue to work on assignments wherever she was—even from her hospital bed as she recovered from repair and revision back surgery.

Since she couldn't type while lying in bed, Anissa used dictating software. And while receiving a blood transfusion in the hospital, she prepared a Thursday blog post for a course and replied to classmates' posts.

"My back injury was just something I had to deal with. My children and their illnesses is just something I have to deal with. It's just life," Anissa says.

"School gave me comfort in all the chaos."

Persisting to the finish

By the end of the Summer II term, Anissa will complete her bachelor's degree in sociology and minor in human resources management.

Because of her back injury, Anissa can't sit or stand for long periods of time and is considered disabled. But Anissa isn't letting that stop her from putting her sociology degree to work. She plans to launch her own agency to help people who have experienced serious challenges in life – such as ex-felons and individuals in rehab – get their lives back on track and find employment.

Anissa also plans to start working on her MBA through Saint Leo's online MBA program.

Grateful for the challenges

For others looking to pursue a degree at Saint Leo, Anissa encourages them to be realistic. "It is school. It's not a cakewalk" she says.

"Just don't be afraid to ask questions, whatever your problem or situation. Be honest and upfront with your professors and student advisor. At Saint Leo, they are there to help you succeed."

Through all the challenges she's had, and the stops and starts, Anissa is grateful for the perfect storm and challenges that have happened throughout her life.

"It's all helped me transition to where I am now."

Image credits: KreativKolors on Shutterstock and courtesy Anissa McLaurin