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When more than 200 graduates from South Florida State College (SFSC) walk down the aisles of the Theatre for Performing Arts, May 7, to receive their diplomas, one candidate will celebrate not merely the end of a 10-year pursuit but that she is walking, period.
Teresa McGovern, 47, was told that she only had an 80 percent chance of ever walking again after suffering a spinal injury in 2011. Her journey to completing her Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management (B.A.S.) degree has been an exceptionally difficult one while overcoming spinal surgeries, uterine cancer, fibromyalgia, and several health setbacks. Because of her stubbornness and determination, it didn’t stop her from living her life.
When she graduated from Fort Myers high school in 1986, she planned to go to college, but her focus changed to children, work, family passing, and health issues.
After finding out she could not return to the job she once loved due to health concerns, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. As a mother of three and grandmother of five, McGovern set out to be the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“It’s a huge deal to me,” McGovern said. “I’d like it to encourage my family and let them and others know that it’s never too late to go back to college or to do whatever you want to do. It doesn’t matter what age you are, if you have the desire you can do it. The only person stopping you is yourself. Don’t let age or circumstances be an obstacle.”
This attitude helped McGovern rise to the top of her class with a 4.0 grade point average; to become a board member of SFSC’s Phi Beta Lambda (PBL) and the African American Association (AAA); to serve as a tutor for SFSC’s TRiO program, to be selected for the national honor society of two-year colleges, Phi Theta Kappa (PTK); and to be inducted into the inaugural class of SFSC’s national honor society for bachelor students, the International Society of Baccalaureate Scholars (ISBS).
She shared that concentrating on a bachelor’s degree this late in life wasn’t the easiest, however she received considerable assistance and advice from SFSC faculty and staff.
“Sometimes being able to talk to my instructor whenever I needed to about whatever’s affecting me made the biggest difference,” McGovern said. “The students are not just a number here. These professors open their hearts to students and make us feel as if we are a part of their family. They don’t do this because they have to, but because they want to.”
“Teresa is one of the hardest working students I have known,” said Adam Martin, PBL advisor and instructor in SFSC’s B.A.S. program. “When she sets a goal for herself, she doesn’t let anything get in her way of accomplishing the task. Her achievements in Phi Beta Lambda and relentless fundraising will be missed. I wish her all the best and know she will accomplish anything she puts her mind to.”
College has forever changed McGovern’s viewpoint on life. She will forever look at people and circumstances more critically, strategically, and comprehensively. She only hopes that her journey will inspire and motivate her own family members to pursue a college education so they can go anywhere they want to in life.
“Dr. Tina Cardenas, lead instructor, SFSC’s B.A.S. program, really pushed me to see the light at the end of the tunnel and believe that no matter what age I am I can do this,” McGovern said. “If it wasn’t for her compassion and other instructors alike, my classmates and I wouldn’t have the knowledge and capabilities we have today.”
She will definitely miss all the extraordinary people she’s gotten to know along the way at SFSC and the place she’s grown to love. Graduation may be sad time for McGovern because another part of her journey is coming to an end, but she’s eager and optimistic for a new chapter of her life to start.
It is during difficult times, she said, that she is reminded of the true value of her education and the reason why she pursued it in the first place. McGovern says she really has her husband Duilio to thank for where she is today.
“Until recently, I never really shared with my husband how much of an inspiration he is to me,” McGovern said. “I wanted him to know that he has truly been the biggest supporter and motivator in my pursuit to reaching my goals. Living with polio hasn’t been the easiest journey for him, but he is the strongest person I know. He took one word out of my vocabulary, and that word is ‘can’t’.”
Just ten years ago, McGovern would have never thought such an achievement possible. Yet, the very quest of her degree provided the inspiration to keep going. Despite her sacrifices and daily struggles, she believes that one day, her children and grandchildren will have unlimited opportunities they may not have experienced otherwise.
“If there is one lesson I would pass along, it is that when you are struggling, take one step at a time,” McGovern says. “You can do it, you just have to do it slowly, and plan everything out. Cause if you don’t do it, you’re only hurting yourself.”
After finishing her bachelor’s this May, McGovern plans to pursue a master’s degree and a doctorate in business. She ultimately hopes to return to Highlands County and come back to teach at her favorite college, SFSC.
SFSC’s Spring Commencement ceremony will be held Thursday, May 7, 6:45 p.m., in the SFSC Theatre for the Performing Arts, Highlands Campus.