Online student Aurelia Lamanna has embraced financial and health hardships as she prepares for her vocation as a religious sister.
College had seemed like a distant dream as serious financial and health obstacles stood in Aurelia Lamanna’s way.
But her family and faith turned these big challenges into big accomplishments, enabling the 21-year-old Saint Leo University online student to graduate in record time with a near-perfect GPA and summa cum laude – the first in her family to earn a college degree.
A Texas native, Aurelia was possibly the youngest and quickest to graduate from a Saint Leo online degree program since the Center for Online Learning was established. She completed her bachelor’s in religion with a minor in sociology in just two years and two months.
“Getting my degree does not only mean embracing the calling God has called me to, but also embracing the struggles my family and I have been able to overcome and surpass,” Aurelia says.
“Come graduation, I will not be celebrating nor receiving a degree strictly for myself. Rather, I will be receiving one with and for my family. It is because of their sacrifices, encouragement and faith in myself that I can truly walk the stage and reach the next chapter in life.”
A family commitment
Higher education has always been a priority for Aurelia’s family but a struggle to achieve. Her grandparents and parents faced economic hardships due to their levels of education. Both of her parents, Italian immigrants, initially pursued college but had to stop due to family circumstances. Her three older siblings also had aspired to attend college but could not finish either as financial problems hit the family hard.
In 2009, Aurelia’s father lost his job, making college seem impossible. That same year, Aurelia was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affected how she felt and her energy level and caused her to lose a lot of weight. She had hoped a gluten-free diet would help, but her symptoms didn’t improve. An additional diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Disease and a genetic predisposition to a low white blood cell count meant she had decreased immunity and numerous sensitivities to different types of foods.
Her siblings and parents pulled together to help the family stay afloat and in their house as well as help pay for Aurelia’s medical bills and expensive dietary needs. They told her not to worry and to concentrate on school, her health and helping around the house where she could. She turned her focus to high school, founding the school’s Bible Club and graduating with honors in the top 10 of her class. She accepted that she would delay college so she could work to assist with family finances.
Her parents had other ideas. They sat her down and told her they would support her to seek a better future — and that included getting her bachelor’s degree.
The right educational and spiritual fit
With her health concerns and limited transportation, as well as a desire to assist her mother at home, continue volunteering in her community, and work at her own pace to complete her degree as quickly as possible, Aurelia decided to enroll in an online degree program.
“After weeks of considering a variety of options from different schools offering online religious and theological degrees, there was an advertisement that popped up on Google discussing Saint Leo University,” she says.
“To this day, I find it a God-sent because Saint Leo’s online program granted me a community of support and opportunity for success. I was able to embrace my Catholic identity as Saint Leo’s core values and Catholic roots influenced and supported my spirituality and religious calling to consecrated life.”
“Saint Leo wanted the best for me.”
Aurelia started taking two courses per term but decided after weighing costs and financial aid that she could handle more. She increased her units to nine credits per eight weeks, successfully finishing 54 credits in a year and allowing her to complete her degree program in a little more than two years.
Doing so meant dedicating weekends to schoolwork and often logging long hours mornings and evenings during the week. Often, her family pulled her away from studying to make sure she took a break. But she wanted to work hard — she wanted to make sacrifices because they had sacrificed for her.
“There were days where I had surgeries or simply was unwell to focus or do my studies,” she says. “But my professors humbly and graciously accepted my disability accommodations. I soon realized how much Saint Leo wanted the best for me and I am so grateful to know I have had this support – SLU faculty and students lending me a hand as I carried my cross – since the day I started.”
Reaching her goals
Reaching graduation was a team effort, Aurelia says. Encouragement from her family, friends and Saint Leo faculty, students and advisor continued to push her forward, and faith gave her strength and peace during stressful times.
“Faith seems like such a small word,” Aurelia says, “but when applied correctly, it can create an explosion of humility and miraculous discovery, as I have seen within my life.”
Faith will further guide her as she enters the next phase of her life and education. Aurelia hopes to find a ministry job in her local parish and pursue a master’s in theology/divinity or pastoral ministry. She feels called to a consecrated life, which could include community living and taking vows, possibly with the Sisters of Mary of Namur. She would like to become a “dedicated religious sister to the Lord” and is waiting for spiritual guidance on the best path to take. She knows God has plans.
Her story does not end at graduation, she says. She hopes her next chapter continues to demonstrate all that Saint Leo University encourages students to become: “loving, dedicated and faithful individuals who never give up, but rather fight for their goals that will lead them to success, while never forgetting those who helped them get there.”
Image credits: mbolina on Shutterstock.com and courtesy Aurelia Lamanna
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