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Phoenix Forward magazine

Quitting was never an option for this alumna

Shermona Woodley

“This is your future — your time to shine,” Shermona Woodley tells students at the University of Phoenix Knoxville Campus. “Don’t let anything get in your way.”

Since graduating in 2012 with a bachelor’s in health administration, Woodley is often invited back to campus. She’s not a motivational speaker by training; she talks from the heart and from personal experience.

Her message is simple: “If I can do it, anybody can.”

She’s had the hard knocks to back up that claim. It’s no exaggeration to say that the challenges Woodley faced during her degree program sound like the tragedies in a country-western song.

“The first class was easy,” Woodley quips. “My life was not.”

She had just begun a new job when she enrolled to complete the bachelor’s degree she’d started 20 years earlier at Tennessee State University. Tough enough. But greater challenges were to come. Shortly after beginning her first course, Woodley was hospitalized with congestive heart failure. That would have been a good reason to drop out. Instead, she completed the course.

If I can do it, anybody can.

Her second course, algebra, was a subject that had always been hard for her. Adding to the challenge, she suffered a stroke in the third week of class. Her speech was slurred, and she lost control of the right side of her body. She spent a week in the hospital and three months in physical therapy to regain strength and motor skills. Somehow, though, she completed her assignments on time and earned a B.

A few months and a few courses later, her then-7-year-old son was struck by a car and spent a few days in the trauma ward. Still, Woodley completed her schoolwork and credits her husband for taking the lead in their son’s recovery.

Not long afterward, Woodley suffered a series of stroke-like attacks. After she was diagnosed and treated, her husband’s transplanted kidney failed. Then Woodley ended up in the hospital for pneumonia.

Through it all, Woodley says she never considered quitting school or taking a break, but points out that in addition to her husband, she relied on members of her University learning team for emotional support.

“This journey would not have happened,” she says, “without those positive interactions.”

The support wasn’t all one-sided, either. Woodley often helped keep up others’ spirits. For one particularly challenging math class, she says, she started singing gospel songs during a team conference call. “Then the others joined in,” she says, adding that it boosted morale and reminded them about what’s important in life.

Early in her program, one of Woodley’s instructors championed her spirit and can-do nature. That instructor became a mentor and friend, and offered Woodley her first job in the health care field. She’s also the one who invites Woodley to campus to encourage students to stick to their degree programs.

“I had a goal in mind, and nothing was going to stop me,” Woodley tells students. “Sometimes in life things happen with the goal of creating strength. From strength comes character.”