At one point during graduate school at Norfolk State University, Michelle Happer, who was working two jobs and caring for a paralyzed son, came across a book that seemed to speak directly to her: Have You Felt Like Giving Up Lately?
“That’s exactly how I felt, [but] I had a lot of support from my church family and different professors,” she says. “We’re just standing upon our faith; that’s about all we can do.”
After several trying years, Happer, a 38-year-old first-generation student, earned her master’s degree this spring in media communications, with a minor in public relations from Norfolk State University.
Michelle earned her bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies at NSU in December of 2004 with the assistance of a program called the Reclamation Project. The program is for anyone who has been out of school for at least 10 years but did not complete a degree. Happer, who had previously pursued a career in social work, combined those credits with English and journalism courses to earn her degree.
“It’s a program where you come back and you can actually pick up where you left off,” says Happer, who worked three jobs simultaneously while an undergraduate. “I had such a good experience in the reclamation project, and just so much support, that it gave me the confidence to take it a little higher.”
Tragically, the day before her undergraduate graduation, her teenage son Mark, then a first-year student at Virginia Union University, was shot and paralyzed in a road rage incident. He was traveling home for Christmas and to celebrate his mother’s graduation.
“He and some friends were coming home from college and someone pulled up beside them and said they had bumped against their car, and when he was reaching to look for his insurance card, the gentleman got out of his car and just started shooting into a car of children,” Happer says. The first bullet hit him in the back and spine, and it paralyzed him from the waist down. It just devastated me.”
Happer says she anguished over whether to attend her graduation, but was finally convinced to participate by her family.
“All of my family was in town, and no one made it because everyone was at the hospital with Mark,” she says.
Although the shooting didn’t prevent her from attending her graduation, it did force her to put off graduate school, which was scheduled to begin in January. Instead, she took time to help Mark begin his rehabilitation process.
“He’s doing better,” she says. “His spinal cord is not severed, it’s in shock, so they believe that with more rehab, it’s possible that he could get back more movement or sensation.”
While Mark continued his rehabilitation, Happer returned to school. She says she’s amazed she managed to complete the graduate program under those circumstances. But her mentor, Emma Inman, whom Happer worked with during an internship, is not surprised.
“Michelle is a very poised and confident young woman,” says Inman. “She was eager to learn all aspects of public relations while she worked at her internship at Sentara Healthcare. No job was too large or too small for her to handle. She has a very bright future ahead of her and I’m proud to have worked with her during this phase of her educational career.”
Today, Happer works in corporate communications for the Norfolk Southern railroad corporation. She is currently involved in on-the-job training in the corporate communications department and is looking forward to being placed in a managerial position.
“When I got the opportunity to [work] at Norfolk Southern, I gave all [other] jobs up because this was my first experience at having a chance to work with a Fortune 300 company,” she says.
Happer plans to pursue her doctorate in communications at Regent University. Ultimately, she wants to work as an adjunct professor teaching public relations and communications at a collegiate level.
At her most recent graduation, her family was there this time with the message not to give up. “No sooner than I had walked off the stage, my dad said, ‘Now, the Ph.D. is next!’”
–Lelita L. Cannon
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