Skip to Main Content Skip to bottom Skip to Chat, Email, Text

Discover more stories in our Alumni Chronicles Magazine!

Despite medical challenges, student finishes two degrees with determination and support from faculty

By Melanie Christensen

UOPX Alumni Kassandra Spann

It’s no question that Kassandra Spann, a 2020 University of Phoenix graduate, has a special story. Born with spina bifida and cerebral palsy, Spann uses a wheelchair.

Despite her medical challenges, she was determined to finish school.

"It is challenging to be in my body every day, no question about that," Spann said. "But I believe that your attitude makes the difference. I work as hard, if not harder, than the students in my class."

Her determination coupled with faculty members' support helped propel her to complete and excel in earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at UOPX. She pursued both degrees sequentially without a break.

One instructor who took notice of Spann was John Kautenberger, whom students often refer to as Dr. JohnnyK. He taught Spann an online course about marketing in the last semester of her undergraduate studies.

"She was motivating the students who didn’t have any health issues at all," Kautenberger said.

Kautenberger said Spann completed many group projects and demonstrated excellent teamwork ability, responsibility, empathy, drive, organization and leadership.

The class wasn’t easy, and Spann put her heart into it. She talked to Kautenberger often to meet his expectations.

"There were times when I would call Dr. JohnnyK all through the week. I probably drove this poor guy crazy," she said. "I was like, ‘I’m scared. I don’t know what I’m doing here. What did I get into?’"

Kautenberger was happy to answer her questions and encourage her to succeed. In return, Spann made sure she took the time to do quality work.

"Dr. JohnnyK can tell you. He would look [my assignments] over and be like, ‘How in the world do you have time to do all this?’" she said. "I believe in doing quality work. There’s no substitute for hard work and quality."

Spann learned a great deal about marketing from Kautenberger’s class, but she gained something even greater: a mentor.

Although Spann has graduated and is searching for work, she still keeps in touch with Kautenberger. He motivates her, advises her and has encouraged her to become a role model for other students with disabilities.

"I’m grateful for the rapport that I’ve been blessed to forge with Dr. JohnnyK because it’s made me a better professional overall," she said. "I know that I’m leaving with skills that will last me for a lifetime and, more importantly, relationships that will last me for a lifetime."

Spann now sees the value in building relationships with faculty members.

"I think that when students and instructors are able to build that relationship, it makes a difference," she said. "Each instructor that you encounter gives you a new chance to make a new impression. How you paint that canvas is completely up to you."

Kautenberger was not the only faculty member who mentored Spann. When she first started school, she met with her advisor, Celeste Cox-Webb.

"She made a tremendous influence on me," Spann said. "She put me at ease about being a student."

Spann said Cox-Webb took the time to teach her Microsoft PowerPoint, a tool she grew to love because it allowed her to present her schoolwork creatively.

"She cared about me enough to sit me down and walk me through it step by step," she said.

Now, Spann hopes she can inspire other students to pursue degrees just like she did. Spann is proud that her brother has decided to become a Phoenix.

"I always encourage him, ‘Hey, find your niche. Find those things you do better than anyone else and play up to those strengths,’" Spann said.

Spann graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Management and a Master of Business Administration with an emphasis in Content Marketing.

To anyone who has a desire to get a degree, she said: "It starts with believing in yourself. You can’t expect anyone to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself."