With an online ministry and responsibility for the care of three generations of her family, University of Missouri–St. Louis psychology and philosophy student Beauty Cooper didn’t have much room for her own goals.
But after an experience with cancer and then after seeing her daughter, Candace Woodard, graduate from UMSL two years ago, Cooper decided it was her time.
“Of my four siblings, I was the only one to finish high school, and it was always my dream to graduate college,” Cooper said. “I cried so many times at other people’s graduations because I just knew I lost my opportunity. At my daughter’s graduation, I knew I had to come to UMSL and be a student because it was part of my family. It made the school more home, and so that’s why I wanted to come here.”
Cooper, 54, attended the University of Missouri–Columbia after she graduated from Normandy High School in 1985. The need to care for a sick family member, then an unexpected pregnancy followed by marriage sidetracked Cooper’s college dreams. Throughout the years, Cooper found herself also being the caretaker for her mother, sister and grandchild.
“Just being that person in the family that has always picked up the slack for everybody made it really difficult to go to school,” said Cooper, who is now divorced and also has an adult son, Geoffrey Woodard Jr.
In addition to raising her family, Cooper focused on her service missions, Beauty Cooper Ministries and Daughters of Divine Destiny, which work to support spiritual growth through mentorship and motivation.
Things changed dramatically for Cooper when she was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2014. Cooper said that she had to have portions of her stomach, spleen and liver removed and that the recovery process took five years. The caretaker then needed care.
“The hospital sent me home to die; they said there was nothing they could do for me,” Cooper recalled. “I had a community of people who stood in the gap for me and made sure I had what I needed. It was my turn, and they jumped in and supported me.”
Out of that near-death experience came Cooper’s renewed determination to complete her college education. She started taking classes at St. Louis Community College and transferred to UMSL in 2020. With a double major in psychology and philosophy and a minor in neuroscience, Cooper is set to graduate in 2022.
She said she has a fresh perspective as a returning student. Cooper has made the Dean’s List both at STLCC and UMSL.
“I didn’t do very well in college when I first came out of high school,” Cooper said. “I started at St. Louis Community College so I could get a feel for school – it had been 32 years since I had been in school.”
The key for success for Cooper has been the online classes. As a result of her long illness and a recent bout with COVID-19 and the ensuing chronic fatigue from “long-haulers syndrome,” Cooper’s health has not enabled her to take on-campus classes.
“I absolutely love taking online classes,” she said. “This is everything for people like me with obligations at home and my health. This allows me to be included in the community of school. I’m like, ‘Why didn’t they think of this years ago?’”
As a way to be part of the campus community, Cooper has participated in women in STEM activities and serves as a new student orientation leader. She welcomes new students in-person and provides information about the campus online through Zoom meetings.
“I want to get involved in anything that would allow me to represent my age group, women and the university as a whole,” Cooper said.
Cooper was so moved by the support that she has received from UMSL, she recently sent Chancellor Kirstin Sobolik a letter.
“Carrying these burdens have been so hard, I almost quit this semester,” Cooper said. “UMSL stepped in, and they have carried me through. I’m so grateful. I feel like my school wants to see me win. I feel like my instructors want to see me graduate.”
“I was surprised when Chancellor Sobolik replied. She didn’t have to, she could have just been someone who occupies a big desk. It tells me that she honors her staff and the work they do, and it tells me that she honors me.”
In addition to her ministry, Cooper is also an author, with a soon-to-be-published book titled “Even In This.” She is also working on a new perfume and lip gloss line and developing an app for her inspirational sayings.
Cooper said it has been her personal and health journey that has influenced her post-graduation career plans.
“I want to be a clinician, to assess, evaluate and treat people who have brain injuries and issues with memory and cognition,” Cooper said. “I care about helping people recover, there’s a lot of hurt in this world. I’m trying to restore hurting people. Just like me, my life was not at the end of the ropes. I have some value to share with someone else, just like the university is sharing with me.”