February 07, 2018

Getting a college degree despite many obstacles

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By Alama Uluave

As a 58-year-old disabled student, I graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies in 2016. The value of education is something that my parents — Tongan immigrants — instilled in me from an early age and throughout my life.

I am passionate about my education because I believe in making a difference in my community.

I draw energy from my children and their will to further their education; after sending seven of my own children to college, I returned to the U to complete the degree that I started 30 years ago.

I used to work for the university as a maintenance supervisor. Thirteen years ago, I became disabled because of health issues — I’m dealing with lupus, diabetes, heart and lung problems. I had to stop working. Ironically, though, the disability gave me the time to study. Instead of staying home to complain about my ongoing poor health, I chose to go back to school.

Not many people at the university know that I am struggling physically. Fewer know that I am on a waiting list for a kidney transplant. Being sick was very distracting and discouraging as I worked to finish up my degree. My health care requires a lot of time, including constant doctors visits. I often felt like I didn’t have the stamina to fulfill my assignments. Even walking to the library was exhausting — I had to stop two or three times to rest. During school, I had to find time to give myself insulin shots and to sleep between classes. Nevertheless, I made it. My strategy was straight forward: I remained positive despite my physical ailments, because I could not afford to look and feel sick on the road to my degree.

With my degree, I look forward to working to solve the problems of inequity in the United States. As an American-Pacific Islander, I can contribute to the research and solutions of many complex societal issues facing people of color, immigrants and transnational residents.