Those are the words of Reata McDonald, a nontraditional student who returned to higher education to show her 14-year-old son the importance of education and life-long learning.   

Though she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of South Dakota just earlier this month, McDonald began her collegiate journey nearly 20 years ago. An Indigenous Zacateco from the island of Oahu, Hawaii, McDonald began her degree at the University of Hawaii immediately following her high school graduation in 1999 – and she did it as a first-generation student.

McDonald's hopes of completing her bachelor’s degree slowly slipped away as her life began to take unexpected turns. Taking one or two classes at a time, McDonald chipped away at her Associate of Arts while also dealing with her former husband’s military deployments. She officially had to quit school when her mother became terminally ill from cancer treatments and needed support.

McDonald provided her mother care for a year before her passing. After that, McDonald said she lacked the energy to even consider returning to school. While her former husband’s military career took priority, McDonald had to focus solely on her son and become a stay-at-home mom.

By the time she was 29, McDonald’s sister became terminally ill with cancer, so McDonald moved back to the islands from her family’s current duty station to care for her. McDonald lived with her sister for eight months as her caretaker before she, too, passed. Around the same time, McDonald was diagnosed with cancer and had to endure chemotherapy, radiation and several surgeries.

“Finishing school seemed like it was no longer an option because the truth was, I wasn’t sure how much longer I would be alive,” she remembered.

A woman poses with her son for a selfie. She is wearing graduation regalia and holding her diploma.After challenging life circumstances kept her out of the higher education landscape for nearly 16 years, the decision to return to school was far from easy – but for McDonald, it was beyond worth it.  

“I was determined to give my son the life he deserved and show him that after your whole world seems to crash down, you can dig your way out and come back stronger,” said McDonald. “Also, I knew statistically that because my son was the child of a single mother and divorce, his future could be negatively impacted."

“To combat those statistics, I knew I had to go back to school and finish my degree so I could improve his likelihood of success in life,” she continued.

Before her time at USD, McDonald worked as an outreach coordinator and public awareness specialist for the River City Domestic Violence Center for nearly three years, advocating for those affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and human trafficking. This important work was another force pushing her to complete her baccalaureate degree.

“My work with survivors was the final straw that pushed me to take the leap and go back to school,” McDonald said. “I wanted to prove to my son that we would be okay. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And I wanted to prove to those around me that I was worthy.”

McDonald moved to Yankton, South Dakota, in 2017, and in fall of 2021, she enrolled as a transfer student in the online sociology program at USD.

“I applied to two colleges and was accepted to both, but USD was an easy choice,” McDonald recalled. “After my acceptance, both colleges contacted me, but only one – USD – seemed to care about how lost I felt and was patient with me as a returned student who was so far out of her element.

“I had so many questions; I was nervous and scared. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have had the success I had without the compassion and care I was shown by everyone at USD.”

Not only did McDonald complete her undergraduate degree in sociology, but she did it with an unwavering drive to succeed, finishing at the top of her classes and excelling in her coursework. She was also inducted into Alpha Kappa Theta, the international sociology honors society.

“It takes courage and resolve to make such a life change and return to complete a degree begun 20 years ago, and I am thrilled to see how successful Reata has been,” said Karen Koster, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Anthropology & Sociology. “I can easily envision her using her curiosity, her intellect and her portfolio of critical thinking, communication and analytical skills to contribute to creating new understanding of our world.”

McDonald also completed undergraduate research and presented it at USD’s IdeaFest symposium. Through her project, titled “The Prevalence of Substance Use Within the Restaurant Industry,” McDonald explored a personal topic, as her brother worked his whole life in the restaurant industry and passed away six years ago from an overdose.

“I saw how my brother’s work in that industry supported his alcohol and drug habit, and this research project helped my group show the connections and attitudes within the industry,” said McDonald. “It was important to share our findings, and I am so glad that I stepped outside of my comfort zone and joined my group at IdeaFest to present our research.”

As a full-time employee at Avera Health and a full-time mom, McDonald knew that if she wanted to complete her bachelor’s degree, she would have to do it online. McDonald said that USD’s online sociology program was crucial to her success, as it allowed her to get her work done at any time of the day.

“I read my textbooks throughout the day – during my lunch breaks, my son’s soccer practices or when he was at church group. And once I finally got home and dinner was done, I would hit the laptop and work until I was falling asleep at my desk,” said McDonald. “It wasn’t easy, but every professor I worked with at USD helped me reach success simply by just believing in me.”

Although financial boundaries are holding her in place right now, McDonald hopes to someday continue into a graduate program to earn a Master of Social Work. When she dreams big, McDonald said she hopes to be in a position where she can continue her work as an advocate for survivors of violence.

“I would like to develop a statewide educational program aimed at teaching children about safe relationships,” she continued. “One of the gaps I saw as an advocate was between children and adults who were simply unaware of what a safe relationship looked like. If we can educate our children, I believe we have hope in creating a massive impact on the cases of violence in our state.”

Regardless of what her future holds for her, McDonald said she feels proud of what she has accomplished and that she has been able to be a role model for her son.

“I am so proud that I was able to walk across that stage for my son. He has watched me fight through cancer, depression and anxiety; lose my sister and brother; go through a divorce; and struggle through the uncertainty of knowing where the next paycheck would come from,” said McDonald.

“And now, he watched me earn my degree despite all that life has thrown my way.”

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