At the finish line: December grad sees her way through parenthood, illness to education degree

DeAnna Anderson tackled being a new mother, living with lupus and an education degree all in 4 1/2 years at UMSL. She’ll graduate next month with a BSEd in elementary education. (Photo by August Jennewein)

DeAnna Anderson could have quit college when times got tough.

An unexpected pregnancy and a lupus diagnosis not long after giving birth might have deterred even the most persistent student. But not once did Anderson consider quitting.

Next month, her determination pays off. Anderson will walk across the University of Missouri–St. Louis commencement stage and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

“I feel like a little kid at Christmas,” she said. “It just will not come fast enough!”

It’s a milestone Anderson’s pointed her life at since 2010, when the North Technical High School graduate enrolled in Knoxville College in Tennessee. During her first year, she became pregnant with her son, Jordan, who will be 7 next month.

An expectant Anderson returned home to her support system in St. Louis. Only a short time after the birth, she became seriously ill and spent three months in the hospital. Doctors diagnosed her with lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. Lupus has no cure but can be managed through lifestyle changes, treatment and medication.

Her body felt weak, but Anderson didn’t want to give up on her educational aspirations.

“I was tired of letting my illness define me,” she said. “So many people and my doctors kept saying, ‘Take it easy. You have lupus and all this stuff going on.’ I was ready to be past that. It felt like it was starting to control my life, and I wanted to take control instead of letting it control me.”

Anderson began taking online classes at Saint Louis University. But when she found out UMSL offered family housing at Mansion Hill Apartments, she saw a path to her degree that also offered independence while still having family support nearby.

She attended a UMSL College of Education information session that sealed her decision.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher,” Anderson said. “But people always had negative connotations with the profession. I’d hear, ‘Teachers don’t make money,’ ‘You have to deal with all this extra work.’ When I showed up and heard people talking about programs and classes, it was enlightening. It was all about changing lives. That’s how I had always viewed it, too.”

In 2013, Anderson moved into a Mansion Hill apartment with her son and started taking UMSL classes online, then progressed to two in-person classes a week and finally a full-time schedule.

She and her son, Jordan, who now attends City Academy, would sit side-by-side doing homework together in their apartment.

Anderson also became a residential advisor and eventually the assistant resident director of upper class housing. The leadership positions helped pay for her housing, alleviated some student loan pressure and connected her into the UMSL Residential Life community.

However, it wasn’t always so simple. Anderson’s lupus manifested itself in a couple of strokes and kidney failure at one point during her years at UMSL. It wasn’t until after chemotherapy treatment that her health stabilized a bit.

She had to withdraw from classes and retake them when she felt better, but Anderson never gave up. She’s graduating with a 3.39 GPA.

“When I was in the middle of it, it did feel heavy,” she said, “but when I look back over it, I had the best college experience, and I didn’t expect that being an older student and a parent.”

Part of that college experience included becoming an ambassador for the campus organization Students Who Are Parents. Anderson found a whole community of other students facing the same stress of balancing parenting and higher education.

“It amazed me just how many of us there are,” said Anderson, who found herself handing out her email address, connecting with parents and building a strong support system for the community.

In her final year, Anderson began student teaching fifth and sixth grade at Duchesne Elementary School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

“It felt amazing to finally be in the classroom,” she said. “The teaching aspect is fun, but what I love even more is just giving students that encouragement, giving them that motivation, laughing with them, crying with them when they’re sad and making mistakes together. They teach me just as much as I teach them.”

She hopes to one day be hired at Duchesne to teach fifth grade. In the meantime, she’s substitute teaching for the district as she prepares to apply to full-time teaching positions across St. Louis for the upcoming school year.

“My journey with having an illness and having a child – it’s real,” Anderson said. “All I keep thinking about as I move into graduation is that I didn’t give up when it got hard, and now I’m here at the finish line.”

The UMSL Experience

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