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Against All Odds: Graduate Achieves Degree Dream Despite Severe Health Setback

Shalonda Michelle Nelson
Shalonda Michelle Nelson

Following her diagnosis of throat cancer in 2015, Shalonda Michelle Nelson faced a daunting future. 

“I was given three to six months to live, and sentenced to hospice in 2016,” she said. “I promised myself I would beat cancer so I could raise my children and go back and finish my degree at UA Little Rock.”

In spring 2019, true to her promise, Nelson returned to UA Little Rock after “miraculously beating cancer.” This spring, she will earn a Master of Arts degree in applied communication.

Nelson credits her cancer survivorship to medical treatments at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and her trust in Jesus Christ.

“After diagnosis, I did three things. First, I decided to trust my prayers were heard. Second, I controlled my emotions by thinking, speaking, and acting positively. Lastly, I made a to-do list,” she said.

Of the items on that list, the Little Rock native has checked off returning to UA Little Rock, getting her associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees, becoming a leader/ambassador for her school, and being an honor student. She has also studied abroad, worked diligently with her community, and ran for public office.

“I came so close to death while battling throat cancer. I did not want it to be said I had potential. I want it to be said I lived up to my potential,” Nelson said “That’s what beating cancer did for me.”

She first attended UA Little Rock in 1998 when she was a military spouse. However, she later got pregnant and left school when her then-husband got stationed at an Alaskan air base. In 2010, Nelson began experiencing symptoms, including a pulmonary embolism which is a sudden blockage in the pulmonary arteries that send blood to the lungs. A cyst was later discovered on her lungs.

Nelson realized that the likely culprit of her health issues was Alaska’s increased use of outdoor wood boilers which caused air pollution. Even as her health worsened, she began to advocate with her neighbors for smoke-free schools and a ban on wood boilers. Her clean air advocacy later resulted in the banning of smoking and the use of tobacco products on all University of Alaska campuses.

Nelson’s passion for advocacy continued when she returned to Little Rock where she ran for City Board of Directors Ward 2.

“However, because I did not have a college degree, I could not get the jobs I needed to support my family after becoming a single parent,’ she said.

Nelson, who now works as a project manager for the Coalition for Tobacco-Free Arkansas, had long dreamed of attending UA Little Rock.

“As a youth, our schools and youth groups took us on field trips to the university,” she said. “I saw how proud the college students were on campus and how happy the Greeks on campus seemed to be, and I wanted that pride.”

While in the university’s Applied Communication program, Nelson said two amazing professors inspired her: Dr. Julien Mirivel and Dr. Avinash Thombre.

“They helped put a title to what was important to me about communication,” she said. “I love the power of communication. How we apply our communication affects the world around us. My degree gave me a foundation and focus on how I apply my communication skills through research and everyday practical use.”

Dr. Mirivel describes Nelson as someone who brings positive energy, a learning attitude, and great engagement.

“I’ve been a mentor for several years now, and she just completed her master’s paper under my direction,” he said. “She has become a keen researcher, a stronger writer, and a better thinker.”

At UA Little Rock, Nelson is a Phi Kappa Phi honor society member, an ambassador for the College of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences, and Education, and a Diversity Council member. She has also been active in the Ethics Bowl and the Psychology Club and has served as an ESPN camera operator thanks to a partnership between the university and ESPN Plus. However, Nelson mainly describes herself as a leader to her four children –  Kristoffer, Kamreaon, Kristian, and Sara. The first-generation college student said she has “a sincere appreciation for the fact that I paved the way for my children to get a higher education.”

Nelson expressed deep gratitude for her children’s support and sacrifices throughout her educational journey.

“Many times I did homework in the bleachers at their games or had to put a sign on my bedroom door that read: “Sorry Mom is Studying, Please Come Back At…” she said. “They were so patient and kind through this process.”

She is also thankful for Rhona and Bill Temple. “I attended a summer camp founded by Mrs. Rhona for at-risk youth. Even after I graduated from her program, she and her husband stayed in my life,” she said.

Mrs. Temple took her to UA Little Rock to register for classes in 1998.

“She and Mr. Bill have cheered me all the way through each of my degrees,” Nelson said. “The two of them always show up at my graduations with big smiles, cameras, and hugs to celebrate, putting a smile on my face and encouraging me to keep going. They never stopped believing in me.”

Attorney Eric Buchanan, another supporter, told Nelson that she was smart and could excel academically.

“He never stopped motivating me. From the time I re-enrolled through each degree, he has given me pep talks,” she said.

After graduation, Nelson plans to “pour my heart into community service, research, and work in the field of communication.” She said UA Little Rock has absolutely prepared her for the next step in her life journey. As a little girl growing up in poverty just blocks away, it was her dream school, and it gave her something to dream about to change her circumstances.

“UA Little Rock embraced me as a unique and curious individual and gave me a fair chance of getting a robust and highly sought-after type of education – one that would set me up for success and prepare me for the real world,” she said. “I am forever grateful and appreciative of my academic family. Every one of my professors had a huge impact on me and motivated me to accomplish my goals. Everyone at UA Little Rock had a role to play in me getting to where I am today, and I am forever grateful.”