Autistic Graduate says UMGC Helped Her Find Career Confidence

Trying to find your passion is not always an easy task. For autistic people, who struggle with being understood, masking and using extra energy just to “fit in” is common. Finding a place in a professional world or classroom can be double the challenge.  

Claudia Petty is one of those people who has struggled with people’s misunderstandings. She said the learning environment at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) gave her the freedom to feel at home within herself and find her true passion. She graduates this month with a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Management. 

With her academic journey, she landed her dream job. 

“The interesting thing about UMGC is that it’s really helped me see my natural skills and enhanced the skills that I knew that I was lacking,” Claudia said.   

Her career path began almost two decades ago. After attending Northern Virginia Community College, obtaining an associate degree, and sitting for the Virginia State Medical Board, she became a Virginia Medical Board certified licensed veterinary technician. For 10 years, Claudia helped teach her colleagues to plan and administer cancer radiation treatments to animals. It was tough.  

After a decade, feeling burned out, she asked herself, “What’s next?” 

In 2009, she took an internship with an information technology (IT) company. She was valued for her energy and her problem-solving savvy as she helped people with software problems. Although she was never a “tech-type” growing up, she felt that she was becoming more invested in IT’s big picture even as she focused on the small details that would make a product’s interface with users really great. 

As her career advanced, Claudia decided a bachelor’s degree would help her continue to reach new heights. In 2015, she decided to go back to school at Kaplan University. But it didn’t offer the support she needed and it carried hidden fees. She then attended University of the People. It was free and it provided the learning challenges she was seeking but it lacked a sense of community.  

An advertisement for UMGC proved to be the turning point. From the first class, Claudia knew that UMGC was the place for her, the place where she would succeed in her quest for a bachelor’s degree. Many autistic individuals find the lights, noise, and face-to-face interactions in work and school environments uncomfortable. The UMGC classroom experience was a perfect fit for Claudia. Online learning worked for her. 

When the pandemic hit and employees needed to work from home, Claudia found yet another opportunity. She thrived with remote work. 

In the last few years, her career and her UMGC education advanced in tandem. The skills her professors taught her helped lay the groundwork for new job responsibilities and promotions. Working with other students in a professional capacity in a classroom environment made her a strong student but also enhanced her communications skills, something she has struggled with throughout her life.  

As an application engineer for a global technology consulting firm, C-Prime, Claudia loves the challenges that come with each new project. Discovering her love for workflow engineering has led to leadership opportunities, and she hopes to continue to use her skills and UMGC education to “enhance what I was already doing and to finally reach a place in my career where I’m doing exactly what I feel like I want to be doing.” 

When asked what advice she would give to other students or colleagues, Claudia offered her motto: “Lead with curiosity and find something that you lose hours over. When you find your jam, you can find ways to turn that into your dreams.”  

She also cautioned that “the world isn’t just one thing.” She noted that diversity extends to the contributions of all people, including those who don’t fit the conventional mold. 

“It’s all of us, a quilt that makes all of us unique and wonderful,” she said. “Because when things can make sense, and you know that you’re not bad or wrong, you know you’re just different, there are so many possibilities.” 

Twenty-five Years and Seven Children Later, Determined Mother Celebrates Her Bachelor’s Degree

Kelly Beech put her college education on a l-o-o-o-o-n-g hiatus. 

Unmotivated by her studies, she dropped out of a community college after a year and married her high school sweetheart just as he enlisted in the Army nearly 25 years ago. 

What followed were seven children – a boy and six girls – born as the expanding family traveled from military base to military base in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Dissatisfied with the education available, she home-schooled them all for years, including a daughter with learning disabilities – dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. 

Then Beech started thinking about going back to college. As the first in her family to attempt to go to college, she really didn’t know how to navigate higher education.  But then another military spouse, who was a good friend, talked to her about the classes she had taken at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). At the same time another friend, also a prior military spouse, was just finishing up her degree.  

Could Beech afford it? Could she do it and still help her children go to college? 

“My friend told me the UMGC classes were good quality. They weren’t just handing out pieces of paper,” she said. “There is enough rigor, but it’s manageable enough. I thought if they could do it, I could do it, and that’s how I started.” 

Beech knew she loved graphic design and she would take some classes and see how it went. 

Enrolling in the fall of 2018, Beech didn’t lollygag.  She took a full set of four classes every semester working toward a bachelor’s degree in digital media and web technology with a minor in human resources. One semester led to another and soon she had an associate degree, then an undergrad certificate in Human Resource Management, and was going full steam toward graduation for a bachelor’s degree. 

After years of doing all of the work for the family, she said she realized she couldn’t keep that up and still complete the classes. 

“At Christmas of 2018, I went on strike,” she said. “I stopped cooking dinner. I realized that school was hard. There’s a lot of writing. It was a bit of a shock to them, but my husband and my oldest daughter learned to cook.” 

She said she learned how to determine exactly what had to be done to get an A for each course. She also learned how to take advantage of the “tons of resources” UMGC offers students.  

She ended up with a 3.968 GPA. That was one B in a Spanish course.  As a bit of an overachiever, she thought about taking the class over to earn an A and end up with a perfect 4.0-grade point average, but her friends convinced her it wasn’t necessary.  

Her experience at UMGC was so rewarding, she said, that she has encouraged her children and husband to attend. She taught her two oldest daughters and husband her techniques of learning and managing online coursework.  

And what Beech learned, especially in her human resources classes, already has paid off in her work as a store administrator for a Safeway supermarket, where she handles recruiting, hiring, employee orientation, and training. 

“A lot of the things I learned have been helpful in my current role in understanding the way people think and process things,” she said. 

When her commencement regalia arrived with all of the attachments for honor societies, she told her son, “This is for graduating in the top 10 percent.” 

“That’s so cool,” he replied. 

Her children being able to witness her accomplishments is one of the great rewards. 

But the journey to get her degree had its own rewards, she said. 

“I waited until I was in my 40s to finish,” she said. “But you can do it. It doesn’t matter how old you are, and it doesn’t matter if you didn’t know what you wanted to do when you were 21. My degree is in a subject that is nowhere near what I thought it would be when I started at community college, and that’s OK.” 

La Sharn Newbill: Staying the Course through Widowhood  

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LaSharn Newbill took the End of Life: Issues and Perspectives course at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) as one of her electives en route to a bachelor’s degree. Little did she realize how quickly she would use its lessons. 

“The most challenging aspect of my journey to my degree was not the classes. It was dealing with life’s obstacles,” said Newbill, who is celebrating her new Bachelor of Science while acknowledging the gut-splitting loss that accompanied it. 

Newbill was in her second semester at UMGC in early 2019 when her husband died suddenly, a trauma that threw her own health into turmoil and eventually prompted her to sell their home and move, another upheaval. His death was not the first daunting hurdle of her academic journey. Nor the last. 

Newbill had returned to school at age 50 so that she could advance her career at ExamOne, a company of Quest Diagnostics, a national medical laboratory.  

“There was position I wanted and I had all the qualifications for it and I had worked hard for it. All of a sudden I learned I couldn’t get the job without a degree in research science, laboratory science or biology ,” Newbill said. “They told me to go and get a degree and they would consider me when the job opened again.”  

A TV commercial for UMGC persuaded her that the university’s online classes—including forensic biology—and flexible scheduling would be a fit for her. She also liked that she could receive credit for past courses taken at another academic institution.   

Even a medical diagnosis that required Newbill to undergo brain surgery did not derail her plans. Newbill was still recovering when she began her first semester of classes. Among other things, the recovery included bouts of memory loss.  

She said her professors were not only accommodating and patient, but they also encouraged her, something she credits for building her drive to continue her studies. She mustered that same resolve when diabetes, depression and an auto-immune disease surfaced after her husband’s death. And again when she put the couple’s home up for sale and moved. 

Newbill’s husband, James, had juggled serious medical concerns before she decided to enroll at UMGC. But he had beaten a health scare, was recovering from a kidney transplant and was on the road to recovery by the time she started classes.  

Then things changed midway through Newbill’s first semester. 

“In October of 2018, my husband lost a lot of weight. By December he was very sick and in and out of the hospital. But then they released him in December and we thought he was doing better,” Newbill recalled.  

At that point, she jumped into her second semester of classes, which included the End of Life course recommended by her professors and adviser.   

“Suddenly I realized that I was taking the class while living through all the steps in it—the trips to the doctors, the tests, the in-and-out of the hospital and then the news he was dying,” she said. “That course carried me through his death.” 

The couple had been together 33 years, since Newbill was 18 years old, and James’ death devastated her. Still, she took only a short time off from school before pushing forward, one class at a time.   

As much as he was in her thoughts, the couple’s “big house and all its memories” left her unsettled. So, she put the home up for sale and made plans to move, still keeping on track for her degree. 

“I moved in September 2020, during the pandemic, during school,” she said. The move was not a smooth one. COVID-19 has caused upheaval in the housing market and she ended up living in a hotel for more than a month while she waited for the closing on her new home.   

The move, a grueling work schedule and Newbill’s health challenges took their toll.  

“I was about to quit UMGC. And then that UMGC commercial came on TV again,” she said. “I told myself, ‘You’ve only got one more year to go. Don’t be a quitter, don’t be a quitter.’” 

Newbill completed the program. She has advanced at ExamOne. Her health is back on track. And she’s planning a post-commencement vacation in Dubai, a trip that she and her husband talked about but never were able to take. 

“I’m moving forward. I’m striving for a new beginning when I cross that stage for my diploma,” she said.   

Daniel Lewis and Claudia Palacios “Master” UMGC Together as Husband and Wife 

Claudia Palacios and her husband, Daniel Lewis, have completed master’s degrees from the School of Business at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). They will claim their diplomas together on the same day. 

“The most challenging aspect of this journey was the work-life balance. The most unique aspect was that my wife and I are obtaining degrees from same school at the same time,” Lewis said. “It has been our aspiration to accomplish our goals together.” 

For more than two years, school was the center of attention in the couple’s Fairfax, Virginia home. Palacios, Lewis and their daughter Natalie, 16, often converged in the evenings over homework. That togetherness amped up when COVID-19 took the couple’s jobs and Natalie’s classes onto virtual platforms. 

“There were days that were easier than others. It was definitely some good and bad but I’m glad we did it,” Lewis said. “One thing I’ll say, there was never a dull moment.” 

Education was what brought Lewis and Palacios together 13 years ago. They met in a student lounge at Northern Virginia Community College, where they were both enrolled. They later celebrated Palacios’s first degree by taking a trip to Paris. On that trip, Lewis proposed marriage. 

Each already had two bachelor’s degrees before they enrolled at UMGC for graduate studies. Lewis has bachelor’s degrees in business management and in criminology, law and society. Palacios has degrees in business management and accounting.   

Lewis will use his new Master of Management—with a concentration in project management—to advance in his career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), where he is a contracting officer with the procurement management office in the Rural Development Division. Even though he works in procurement, he decided to learn more about project management.    

“I thought it would help me become a project manager or procurement manager,” he explained. 

Palacios also works at the USDA, as a government information specialist in the Freedom of Information Act office in the Rural Development Division. Her new Master of Science in Accounting Information Systems promises to open career doors. She said the UMGC program was especially attractive because it let her take courses in two areas of interest: accounting and cybersecurity.   

“Some assignments that I had were really interesting. And I got to work on different software, including some programs I’d heard of but hadn’t used before,” Palacios said. “I also became more aware of not only protecting yourself from spam but the different forms of spam and how to look for them.”  

Lewis and Palacios may have completed their degrees together, but they did so via vastly different study habits, sometimes staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning to work on assignments. 

Lewis jumped into his studies immediately after work each day, tackling readings and assignments methodically, piece by piece. Palacios, meanwhile, waited until deeper into the evening. She was less riled by deadline pressure.  

“She liked to decompress and get her thoughts together before she started in,” Lewis said. “Sometimes she would come up with her best ideas in her sleep!” 

Palacios said that turning their home into an informal study hall probably made the journey to a degree easier for both of them. 

“We were motivating each other. Checking in to ask, ‘Hey, how’s your paper going?’ Or ‘Hey, can you proofread my paper while I proofread yours?’” she explained. “And since we were in two different majors, I could see his work from an outside perspective.” 

That did not mean there weren’t uphill moments. Palacios laughed when she explained that she announced on more than one occasion that she was quitting her program. “But then I’d mention that I had a project due in a few days, so I was only really quitting for one day.” 

Lewis cited “three solid reasons” why he and Palacios chose UMGC for their master’s degrees. “It was an online institution, it was nationally known and accredited, and it offered discounted tuition for federal employees,” he said. “There was also the factor that there was no GMAT or GRE requirement.”  

They coordinated to make sure they were on the UMGC commencement schedule to walk on the same day during the same time slot. They noted that one benefit of graduating together is that they could jointly invite more family members to the ceremony. 

After an immediate celebration with family, they will have a party with friends. “And in the summer we plan a trip to Los Angeles to celebrate,” Palacios said. 

From Homelessness to a Master’s Degree, Yannick Bopda Now Aims for Medical School

For two long years, Yannick Bopda has looked forward to walking across the graduation ceremony stage to receive his degree in full regalia. Bopda officially completed his master’s degree in health administration in 2020, but COVID-19 interrupted plans for commencement. Bopda now can finally don cap and gown and put an exclamation point on a journey that was far from easy.  

Bopda’s path to higher education started as a child in Cameroon. Seeking political asylum, Bopda and his family left the country in 2005 to escape the ongoing warfare and genocide. In the United States, the son of college-educated parents did not initially follow in their footsteps. Describing himself as a typical rebellious teenager, Bopda dropped out of high school.  

“Sometimes teenagers just want go to McDonald’s and work and earn money, and they think that’s enough,” he said.  

Shortly after dropping out, Yannick’s life took a turn down a path that would forever change him – homelessness.  

Upon learning he had dropped out of high school, Bopda’s parents kicked him out of the house. With nowhere to go, he sought refuge in a local homeless shelter. During his year in the shelter, Yannick discovered a resiliency and drive that he did not know he had. Witnessing chronic illness and death around him, he found himself at a crossroads. He woke up one morning in the shelter thinking deeply about the meaning of his own life.  

“There will always be obstacles,” he thought, “but how you respond to these will define if you deserve to get that big breakthrough.” 

He decided that day to complete his GED and then pursue his certification as a licensed medical administrative assistant, which launched his career and provided a way out of the shelter.  

In the shelter, Bopda had to rely on his inner strength to survive. With no real guidance or mentorship, he focused only on the future, hoping that tomorrow would not be like yesterday.  

“I held onto academics as my way out and knew that although life was pretty hard, the best is yet to come,” he said. “I decided that I will not become a statistic but will one day be able to give back to this country that adopted me and always help others.”  

Upon leaving the shelter and beginning work in the medical field, Bopda earned his associate degree at Prince George’s Community College, which propelled him to complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology at University of Maryland Global Campus in 2018.  

Bopda’s journey from homelessness to higher education has given him the confidence, zeal, and courage to take on further challenges. As a result of his hard work toward a health administration degree, Bopda earned induction into the Upsilon Phi Delta Society, as well as the Marquis Who’s Who and National Society of Leadership and Success.  

Now, Bopda aspires to train to become a medical doctor, specifically a gastrointestinal surgeon. 

“UMGC has helped me become the person I am today, to prepare me for medicine,” he said. “My master’s degree has allowed me to gain a better understanding of what it takes to run a successful health care practice.”  

Bopda believes that medicine is his calling. In the shelter, he came to understand that the world needs him to become a doctor. “I saw the lack of medical care and neglect; I saw what homeless people were going through, sickness and loss of life,” he said.  

Yannick is already taking steps to become a doctor for underserved populations. “I hope one day to create a technological solution to provide early detection for the diseases that are death sentences to many,” he said.  

Perhaps the most gratifying part of Bopda’s journey is that today he enjoys the full support of his family, both biological and spiritual. He and his father reconciled several years ago and the two remain close and supportive. “I have a great relationship with all of my family,” he said. “After I received my bachelor’s degree, my father came to my graduation that evening and he asked me to forgive him, which I did.”  

Tamaria Wadley Applies Her New Skills and Helps Her Fellow Teachers Adjust to Online Instruction

Tamaria Wadley started her Master of Education in Instructional Technology at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) just weeks before her elementary school was forced into virtual classes by the onset of COVID-19. It didn’t take long before she was in demand by fellow teachers challenged by the overnight switch to online education. 

When Wadley receives her graduate degree at UMGC’s May commencement, she will also carry an accolade from her first year at Lyles-Crouch Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia. She was named Teacher of the Year for helping her colleagues navigate the jump to online education. 

Wadley said her UMGC classes were “perfect timing.”  

One class, K Through 12 Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning, taught her how to streamline online learning programs to get the most out of virtual teaching. “That’s when I got into the mindset of using the computer for enhancement, not just playing games,” she said. “That’s how I taught online when the new school year started, and my principal saw what I was doing and she told other teachers about it.” 

Wadley was just beginning her job at Lyles-Crouch and knew nearly no one after transferring from another Alexandria school, but word got around. She started receiving emails from other teachers asking for help. 

Born in Texas to a military family, Wadley had begun her college education at Howard University as a computer science major. But during her first year, she volunteered in a D.C. elementary school, teaching math and literacy skills. 

“I saw that my need was better met in elementary teaching and not computer science,” she said.  

Howard had no undergraduate education degree, so Wadley transferred to the University of Texas at San Antonio. She taught fourth grade in Houston for five years. When her family moved to Virginia, she followed and taught for a year in Prince William County and then in Alexandria City Public Schools.  

“That’s when I found my love for computers again, finding activities for students on the computer or making activities,” she said. “Teachers would come and ask me for help. I found that there’s a position where you can get paid to do that, instead of doing it for free. I set my goal to become a technology integration specialist.” 

Wadley was attracted to UMGC because that is where her mother earned a degree—at age 56—after retiring from the Air Force and working as a government contractor at Marine Corps Base Quantico. 

“With her going back to school and working full time, I said, ‘Tamaria, you can do this.’ UMGC had the exact program I wanted. I would be able to teach teachers how to use technology, which is what I wanted to do,” Wadley said. 

She started the program in January 2020. When the pandemic hit in March, she assumed the students would be gone from classes only for a couple of weeks. Once the weeks stretched and virtual teaching kicked in full time, Wadley relied on her good understanding of computers from her time at Howard. 

“The difficult part came in helping my teammates. That’s when the UMGC courses came into play,” she said. “I had to make an entire website for one of my courses, and then I sent it to my teammates, and I said, ‘You can use all of this stuff on here.’”  

The UMGC program was asynchronous, so Wadley could fit it into her schedule. Most of the professors taught in public schools, and they had plenty of practical experience. What Wadley had to learn to do as a technology administrator was to get computer information to other educators. 

She said the feedback from her UMGC professors was unparalleled. 

“It wasn’t just one and done. They gave me their phone numbers. You could text them and get instant feedback, even at 9:30 at night. Some even offered face-to-face Zoom interaction, which is great because sometimes it gets lonely only learning online,” she said. 

With her degree in hand, Wadley is ready for the next step—becoming a technology integration specialist in her school and working one-on-one with teachers to introduce programs.  

“Say a teacher is doing a math lesson on decimals, and he or she says, ‘Hey, I really want to do something fun with technology-based teaching.’ I would come up with the lesson, and then teach it to the students and to the teacher,” Wadley explained. 

As she worked her way through her UMGC courses, Wadley had help from an unexpected corner: eager fourth graders whose work samples found their way into her college courses. 

“I like to tell my students they were my guinea pigs throughout my entire time at UMGC,” she said.  

Mike Kelly Found a Way Out, and Up

Mike Kelly was about at rock bottom. 

Born and raised in Maryland’s Calvert County, Kelly, 32, was forced to leave Catholic University before graduation because of family financial problems. He had a lot of debt he could not repay and no degree. He decided to see what he could do without a degree and landed a position in security at UMGC. 

He liked the people, and the work was okay. But he became more and more unhappy because he could not see how he would ever be able to advance into meaningful, well-paying work without a degree. He said he had hit “a brick wall.” 

“He felt like he was in a dead-end job and everything was dead, and he didn’t know what to do,” said George Trujillo his supervisor. His attitude was beginning to affect his job. 

To make matters worse, Catholic would not release his transcript until he did something about the unpaid debt, so he could not transfer credits to work on a degree.  

And then the house he had just bought burned down, leaving him with nothing. Even his cat died. 

All he wanted, he said, was to earn enough money to support a family comfortably. 

Oddly enough, the loss of the house may have turned his life around. 

As he worked to rebuild it, he made himself his own project manager, working on all of the specs and details in the construction. 

“I ended up finding a love for project management,” he said. 

Trujillo said he talked with Kelly about what was bothering him. When he learned that Kelly was frustrated by his job but was fascinated with project management, he connected Kelly with George Theoharis, UMGC’s senior project manager, under a mentorship program designed to help employees grow in their jobs. 

Theoharis counseled him about the basics of commercial project management, which whetted his appetite even more. Since pursuing a regular degree was closed to him because he could not get the Catholic credits, he launched into a certificate program in project management. 

“I was getting A’s and absolutely loving it,” Kelly said. But he still wanted that bachelor’s degree. What to do? 

“I just came up with the idea that I would write the president of Catholic University,” he said. “I told him the whole situation of the problems with my dad’s credit, and how I just want to be able to get ahead in life. I didn’t think anything would come of it, but in a couple of days, I got an email back, and it was authorization to release my credits. I’ll be honest with you. I broke down in tears.” 

With those 60 credits, he was just a year-and-a-half away from a UMGC degree in business management, the closest bachelor’s degree that would help him in project management. 

Trujillo saw the change in Kelly’s demeanor. 

“He took off like a rocket; he started taking all kinds of classes,” he said. “And his GPA is something like 3.98.  And you just saw this whole new transformation. He was outgoing, happy and giddy about the classes.” 

With graduation approaching, Kelly already has landed a new job with a contracting firm working for the Department of Defense, doing risk assessments for the Navy. His job is to find the active and passive risks before they become a threat that would throw a project off track. The job has great potential for growth. 

Kelly praised the support he had received from UMGC’s administration from President Greg Fowler on down. 

“What I loved about them is that even in a position of higher power, they always treated us with respect, as a human being and not as another worker,” he said. “It’s one thing that can really help somebody.” 

Kelly said his story shows that people can come from most any background and still succeed in accomplishing their goals. 

“Sometimes it’s the people you least expect that can make the biggest impact,” he said. “It’s not where you come from but how hard you work.”: 

Trujillo said Kelly’s gain is UMGC’s loss. 

“I can’t wait to see him at graduation in May,” he said. “The worst part is turning over one of my best security guards. I hate losing him. But I understood 1,000 per cent.” 

Largest Class of Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipients to Attend University of Maryland Global Campus

Unique Scholarship Program Recognizes Volunteer Service of Family Members and Friends Who Care for Severely Wounded, Ill or Injured Military Servicemembers

Adelphi, Md. (June 30, 2021)—Twelve caregivers of wounded, ill, or injured military servicemembers were awarded full scholarships to attend University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). That is the largest number of scholarships the Pillars of Strength program has ever awarded in a single year. 

Of the 51 recipients of scholarships since the program began in the fall of 2013, 13 have now graduated and four more are expected to join them by December. 

“Pillars of Strength is truly a marquee program for UMGC,” said President Gregory Fowler. “It continues our long tradition of service to the military and aligns precisely with our goal of bringing education within reach for underserved populations, thus improving lives and strengthening communities around the world. We are so proud of this year’s recipients, so grateful for their service to injured and wounded military personnel, and so pleased to be able to support them as they work to overcome the challenges ahead and improve their own lives and the lives of those they love.” 

“We are once again pleased that we have been able to expand the Pillars program even further with 12 more full scholarships to our great recipients,” said Richard F. Blewitt, founder and CEO of The Blewitt Foundation, which established the Pillars of Strength program in association with UMGC. “We are proud to remain the only program of its type providing full scholarships to the caregivers of our military heroes.” 

The scholarships are designed to help volunteer caregivers, usually spouses of servicemembers. These scholarship recipients have had their worlds turned upside down as they take over day-to-day caregiving responsibilities while maintaining a household, earning income to make ends meet and, often, raising children. 

The restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic made those challenges much more difficult. Among other things, they complicated the caregivers’ ability to be present when their servicemembers and veterans, who often had memory problems, visited doctors. 

These caregivers receive few, if any, educational benefits from the federal government, yet academic degrees are often essential to their ability to support their families. UMGC’s fully online programs allow these students the flexibility they need to earn college credit on their own schedules. 

“Caregivers give and give and then give some more… often losing themselves in that cycle of care,” said Besa Pinchotti, executive director and CEO of the National Military Family Association, a partner organization in the scholarship program.  Providing scholarships to these 12 caregivers isn’t a gift, but an investment in the future of their families who gave so much to our country. It’s an honor to work with The Blewitt Foundation and UMGC who are making it all possible. 

Melissa Allen, one of this year’s Pillars of Strength recipients, said it felt like a weight had been lifted when she learned she had been chosen for a scholarship. “I let out a huge cry and sigh of relief because it finally was like those bricks that were on my shoulders? They fell off.” 

Although the specific circumstances surrounding each of this year’s recipients—all wives—were different, in many ways their experiences were the same. 

They talked about how the “invisible wounds” of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder often went unrecognized while the servicemembers were in the field. These injuries also were not obvious to the public, and the caregivers faced critics who wondered why their husbands were not working. What the public could not see were the sleepless nights, the psychotic spells and the struggles to manage the most basic needs. 

Caregivers married to men who were committed to their military careers said their husbands did not want to accept that they were wounded, ill, or injured, even as they were sent back into battle. 

These women had to come to grips with how to help relieve the pain and psychological suffering of their loved ones while still raising children, working to support their families and handling most of the household finances and decisions. They had to become quick studies in disorders with long, complicated names. And they had to learn how to take care of themselves so they could continue to have the strength for their work and their caregiving duties. 

The bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration often was overwhelming, many said. One recipient has gone to work for the VA with the express purpose of using her experience to make it easier for other injured veterans and their caregivers to get the attention they need. 

“I want to help the veterans and their families in this journey, especially the new ones who are coming into the system,” said scholarship recipient Karen Lopez. “I’ve heard a lot of horror stories—how patients would fall through the cracks, how family members struggled to get appointments for their spouses. I want to make sure the gaps in the system don’t happen to them, at least on my watch.” 

Here are the stories of 12 remarkable women who are setting off on a path to remake themselves and build the resiliency of their families.

Melissa Allen, Bloomingdale, GA

Elisabeth Baugess, Springfield, VA

Volha Butkouskaya, North Potomac, MD

Sasha Clarkin, Bayville, NJ

Lelia Cottner, Kissimmee, FL

Karen Lopez, Kissimmee, FL

Amanda Martin, Fort Bragg, NC

Connie Ozmer, Bonney Lake, WA

Lisa Shaw, Monroeville, PA

Anna Soler, Tacoma, WA

Alison Storemski , Bowie, MD

Elisa Zanni-James, Fort Mill, SC