Nearly 30 years after beginning her college journey, Navy administrationman earns her degree despite one of life's toughest blows.
Zelanna Alexander was giddy. Not even the 13-hour-drive from Millington, Tenn. to Virginia Beach, Va., could dampen her enthusiasm.
After all, she had waited almost 30 years for this day.
This spring, nearly three decades after her college journey began, and less than eight months after surgery to treat an aggressive form of brain cancer, Zelanna crossed the stage to receive her diploma.
It was a dream come true.
Zelanna completed her criminal justice degree program through Saint Leo's Center for Online Learning (COL). And while COL commencement is held at Saint Leo's University Campus, because Zelanna was unable to travel the long distance to Florida, arrangements were made for her to participate in Saint Leo's Virginia region ceremony.
"She was like a kid at Christmas," says Gwendolyn Mikaels, an information analyst at Saint Leo's Hampton Roads Center in Virginia. "It was her dream to be there; this was exceptionally important to her."
Focused on her Navy career
Zelanna always dreamed of earning a college degree. So it wasn't a surprise when she enrolled in college following her high school graduation in Anchorage, Alaska.
But it wasn't meant to be, the now 47-year-old Zelanna says. "I just sort of stopped."
She pressed on over the years, taking a class or two here and there at the local community college while managing an active career as an aviation maintenance administrationman in the Navy.
While the Navy encouraged her to pursue her degree, life always had a way of intervening. But despite her starts and stops, Zelanna held fast to her dream.
Earning a Saint Leo associate degree
In 2006, while stationed at a jet base in Virginia Beach, Va., Zelanna enrolled in Saint Leo University's South Hampton Roads Education Center, earning her associate's degree less than two years later.
She wasn't done yet, however.
Determined to earn a bachelor's degree, Zelanna enrolled in Saint Leo's online criminal justice program in 2013. The online program provided the flexibility she needed to advance her education while still on active duty.
But this time, however, it was cancer that threatened to stall Zelanna's dream.
Fighting cancer with quiet courage
Zelanna tried not to notice when the vertigo started in 2012.
"I just went about my work," she says.
But after a 4-day dizzy spell, a friend on the Tennessee base where Zelanna was stationed insisted she go to the hospital.
That's when Zelanna learned she had a mass on her brain. Still, she focused on her work and her studies, convincing herself everything would be okay.
"Bottom line, I didn't realize the seriousness of my condition," she admits.
A second MRI in 2014 revealed the mass had grown; surgery provided the diagnosis no one expected: a grade III astrocytoma.
Radiation and chemotherapy came next.
"Can't isn't in my dictionary
"She was always so determined and positive," recalls Zelanna's advisor Donna Bleiler. "We have students who have everyday problems and it completely derails them. Here Zelanna was going through horrendous surgery and treatments, and she never gave up."
In fact, Donna says the only time she remembers Zelanna sounding discouraged was when she was forced to drop a class because of diplopia – double vision – a side effect of the brain surgery.
"She was determined to work through it," Donna adds. "She is amazing; she just wanted that degree."
"The word 'can't' isn't in my dictionary," Zelanna says. "I wanted to do it; I wanted to get it done."
"Unbelievable" support from Saint Leo
With quiet courage, Zelanna is able to discuss her battle with cancer.
But ask her about the people at Saint Leo who believed in her and her ability to complete her degree and her confident voice wavers.
"The support I received from Saint Leo was unbelievable. Just thinking about it makes me cry."
Gena Freese, the sponsor billing coordinator who processed Zelanna's Navy tuition assistance program payments, did more than answer questions – she offered continual encouragement and emotional support.
"She would just talk to me; I could tell she really cared," Zelanna says. "She was wonderful."
Gena says Zelanna "touched my heart." She became more than a student; she became a friend.
"We were talking and she started telling me her story. That was it," Gena says. "We connected and our friendship began."
Helping others realize their dreams
Zelanna is the first in her family to graduate from college. Her father, mother and brothers, she says, are "real proud."
She hopes to use her degree to help others facing personal challenges – perhaps victims of sexual violence or teens dealing with substance abuse.
"I just want to help people. I want to make people happy; I want to help them realize their dreams," she says."
Much like Zelanna did herself, earning a college degree.
Image Credits: ilkefoto on Shutterstock and courtesy Zelanna Alexander