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May 19, 2023 – Carol Mitchell graduated from South Florida State College (SFSC) on Tuesday, May 9 when she earned her Associate in Science in Nursing (ADN). In fact, she was the student Commencement speaker for the 4 p.m. ceremony. She is also the first person in her family to graduate from college.
Over her 45 years, she’s held many jobs — patient care technician, medical secretary, realtor, licensed practical nurse, radiology technician, and even truck driver. Her life took twists and turns but it always came back to the desire to serve and care for others.
“When I was 18, I helped a friend care for a woman in her home,” Mitchell said. “She was Tess Miller, the matriarch of the Miller’s Central Air family. I fell in love with the ability to come into someone’s life and care for them and try to make their day a little better. Some people just do it for a paycheck, but some do it because they feel good about helping others. Working with Tess was why I got my Patient Care Technician certificate at SFSC.”
After working as a patient care technician and a medical secretary, Mitchell made a foray into the real estate business. In the early 2000s, her sister was a realtor and she invited Mitchell to work with her. “The market was such that you could practically walk across the street and someone would want to sell their house,” she said. “When I went to work in real estate, I excelled. I made over $300,000 my first year.” But when the market took a downturn, health care called Mitchell back and she applied to SFSC’s Practical Nursing program and, eventually, became a licensed practical nurse (LPN).
Mitchell’s first job out of College was in a physician’s office. When the office lost its X-ray technician, the doctor offered to send Mitchell through a Radiologic Technician program. She practiced nursing and radiography in the physician’s office until her mother-in-law, a quality assurance director at a psychiatric and behavioral health facility in Okeechobee, mentioned that they had an opening for a nurse.
“It was a youth prison,” Mitchell said. “Although I wasn’t interested at first, my mother-in-law convinced me to apply. And the experience was life-changing.”
“At the facility, I worked as a nurse in the infirmary,” Mitchell said. “A boy had a seizure and the teachers and other boys panicked. Often, during emergencies, people panic, and their brains shut down. In this instance, no one was helping the boy. I did CPR on him for five minutes. His heart had stopped and he was unconscious. I was able to get his heart started and he was breathing, but he wasn’t conscious. Then the EMT got there and took him to the hospital. When the boy returned to the facility three days later, he came to the infirmary. He said, ‘I heard that I have your breath.’ I laughed and said, ‘You’ve got more than a little bit of my breath.’ He cried and asked me, ‘Why did you do that? Why would you do that for me? Nobody would have done that for me.’ I said, ‘Of course, I would have.’
“What stands out is the appreciation this child who was in prison had for my breath saving his life, that he felt as if he didn’t deserve it,” she said. “That stays with you because you realize that’s where you belong and that’s what you should be doing — helping to care for others.”
Mitchell, eventually, wanted more. After a brief stint working as a truck driver alongside her husband, she made her way back to SFSC and entered its Associate in Science in Nursing program.
Everyone has challenges in their lives and, with great personal strength and determination, Mitchell had overcome a big one. When she was 15 years old, she was sexually assaulted and became a teen parent.
“It would have been easy to let it consume my life and give up my dreams,” she said. “But I refused to let it define me, take me off course, and keep me down.”
Mitchell explained that a high school teacher had called her an abomination and an embarrassment and that Mitchell shouldn’t be allowed to attend high school because she was pregnant.
“She didn’t know my story,” Mitchell said. “To this day, those words still hold weight. But, instead of letting them define me, I used them as motivation to push myself forward and focus on being the best version of myself. My parents’ love gave me the foundation I needed to keep going. I was determined to use my voice to make a difference and propel me toward my goals and a better future for myself and my daughter, Haley, who is now a decorated soldier in the United States Air Force. She’s the best part of me.”
Mitchell is deciding how she wants to move forward in her career. “I love the operating room and critical care,” she said. “However, I haven’t decided what the next step will be. There are so many opportunities for nursing. If I stay locally, I want to participate in a residency program that both AdventHealth and HCA have offered. I just haven’t decided what area I want to go into. I want to be well-equipped as a nurse and know everything I can before I get out there and start practicing. I want to work toward a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, then a master’s degree in Nursing, and maybe become a nurse practitioner. That’s the long game. I don’t know if I’ll have that done by age 80.”
Mitchell has advice for people who think they can’t go to college. “The biggest problem I have is when someone says, ‘I’m too old, it would be too hard, or I can’t afford to go back to college right now.’ Have a meeting with yourself. Get to SFSC and speak with someone about placement tests and see where you’re at. If you need help, the College has tutors in math, English, science, or foreign languages. Then, there’s financial aid. Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and see where you’re at. You may be qualified for funding such as scholarships and grants. There are programs that pay you while you go to college. Check out the academic and workforce programs offered at SFSC and see what you’re interested in. They may have a program that you didn’t even know existed.”
Mitchell is particularly proud of her college career and all she has attained. She was vice president for the Phi Theta Kappa honor society; she served as a student ambassador during the College’s 10-year reaffirmation for accreditation; she was a proctor, lab assistant, and tutor in the Natural Science Department; and she participated in undergraduate research and presented that research at student and professional science conferences. And she graduated with a 4.0 GPA.
“I’m proud of the fact that I persevered and never gave up,” Mitchell said. “Those people who are 20 years ahead of me in their careers — it doesn’t matter. I’m proud that I graduated and will be a registered nurse. That achievement is different for me than someone who graduated from high school and kept going. It might be exciting for them, but is monumental for me. I’m just proud of where I am.”