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Phoenix Forward magazine

Chronic MS couldn’t stop alum’s graduation walk

Aubri Shauger-Haley

When Aubri Shauger-Haley followed her husband, Richard, across the stage at a University of Phoenix commencement ceremony last summer, the moment marked more than an academic achievement. The couple also celebrated Aubri’s success in the face of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS).

In 2004, Aubri was diagnosed with MS, a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system. She had to give up her much-loved career as a dental assistant and switch to an entry-level secretarial position with the city of St. Petersburg, Florida. During her job hunt, she realized she’d probably need a college degree if she wanted to have more career options.

I knew I no longer had a future in the dental world, but I still had a heart to help people,” she says. “I knew I could use my experience in other fields, but I needed the educational tools to get to that next level.”

After attending a college fair at which many schools were represented, she decided to take the plunge — and Richard did, too. Together, they started University courses in 2007 and set a goal of finishing their bachelor’s in business management degrees before their oldest daughter, then in junior high, graduated from high school.

Don’t let anything be an obstacle; just ask questions and understand what you need to succeed.

At first, Aubri worried that her MS might hold her back, but she drew courage from a motto her grandfather had taught her, “You should be excellent in everything you do.” She notes that “for me to be truly excellent, I could not look at my disease as a crutch.”

She worked closely with her academic advisor and her doctor to develop strategies to fully participate in her courses.

“I contacted my teachers ahead of time and prepared lists of accommodations I might need,” she explains. “I used the zoom function on electronic texts to reduce my eyestrain. Teachers knew that I might need to get up during class to stretch and relieve my legs. I had a great advisor who said, ‘Don’t let anything be an obstacle; just ask questions and understand what you need to succeed.’”

Both Aubri and Richard applied what they learned in class to their jobs, and they believe it helped their careers. “I learned to present information calmly and confidently,” Aubri says. “Your co-workers notice, and you become a go-to person in the office.”

Aubri and her husband both moved up in their careers. She became a neighborhood specialist for St. Petersburg — a liaison between neighborhood associations and city government — and Richard rose from maintenance technician to a supervisor for the city’s wastewater crew.

In 2011, Aubri and Richard graduated with their bachelor’s degrees and decided to try to earn their MBA degrees before their daughter’s high school graduation in 2013.

Meticulous scheduling was crucial, the couple says, as they balanced their jobs, their children’s after-school activities and everyone’s homework. Aubri even used down time during Little League games to study. “When my kids were sitting in the dugout, I’d work on my papers,” she laughs. “I didn’t have to miss out on life; I just had to plan very carefully.”

Last summer, Aubri, Richard and their daughter all wore commencement caps and gowns. Richard’s favorite memory is of sitting next to Aubri during the University of Phoenix ceremony, and then waiting for her as she crossed the stage. “Completing [our MBAs] together showed our children and friends just how much we value our education,” he says.

Since her graduation, Aubri has become more involved with online and local MS support groups. She plans to join her local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in a fundraising walk in April.

“I want to be the face of going out and getting a degree, starting a new job,” she says. “I want to show the world that hearing the words [of an MS diagnosis] doesn’t have to be the end. As my husband told me, it is simply the beginning.”

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