UW-Green Bay graduate Nancy Christensen has a perseverance story like few others

Nancy Christensen
Nancy Christensen

It’s safe to say that nothing was going to stand in the way of Nancy Christensen and a college degree.

Despite having to take courses at five colleges through 54 years; amidst a divorce that left her a single mom with no time for classes; and in facing the biggest battle of her life, against COVID-19; she will graduate with a degree in Organizational Leadership and walk with her peers at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Commencement May 13, 2023.

It may just look a bit different than her younger, healthier peers.

“I still can’t walk very far, and I typically use a cane or walker for stability, but I can take the oxygen off for short periods of time,” she said. “It is important for me to walk across that stage in the upcoming graduation ceremony because, darn it, I deserve this! I will be pushed in a wheelchair to a ramp on the stage where I will take off my oxygen and walk to receive my diploma. Then I will once again use my portable oxygen and wheelchair to go down from the stage.”

Her story is one of a long, slow recovery from Covid. She was hospitalized on Sept. 2, 2021, with acute COVID that brought her very close to death; even doctors and nurses say they didn’t expect her to survive because she had severe lung damage and refused intubation. “I knew several people who were intubated then died coming off intubation,” she said. “But I am a very tenacious person who doesn’t give up easily. I was determined that I would walk out of that hospital some day! I was in the hospital for 3.5 months and I did indeed walk (wheelchair) out to hallways filled with doctors and nurses clapping for me because I made it! That was such an incredible experience! My hospital stay was the longest continuous stay for anyone in the history of Theda Care Regional Medical Center.”

The motivation to continue came, she says, from her mother.

“She instilled in me a strong desire to be educated and strive for excellence. I also somehow grew up with a ‘don’t you ever quit’ attitude both in education and in life itself. My mother had always wanted to attend college to be a teacher but once she married and started having children there would never be enough time or money to make that happen. In her era, there were few funding opportunities for a higher education.”

It’s a lesson in tremendous persistence that Christensen is now leaving to her children and grandchildren. In fact, her children, and especially her oldest daughter (an educator) gave her the extra encouragement she needed to complete the degree.

“My life has been difficult and there were times I wanted to quit it all. Marriage, divorce, remarriage, divorce, single motherhood, living alone for 20 years… I just kept telling myself to do what was in front of me and keep walking. Taking one step at a time, sometimes one hour or one minute at a time, and here I am, about to graduate! I want to finish well for my children and grandchildren. It will be a good legacy to leave behind. My children are great people. They are responsible, successful in their chosen professions, raising their children to be the same and to never give up. I’m proud of them and want them to look at my life and be proud of me.”

Christensen started earning college credits in September of 1969 and will officially complete her degree this summer when she takes her final two classes. (Summer graduates are allowed to march in spring ceremonies at UW-Green Bay). She will graduate with honors.

And then it’s time for new beginnings. Christensen plans to put that degree to work, even at 71 years old!

“At first, finishing became a ‘bucket list’ item, now, even though I’ll be 72 in August, that doesn’t mean that I won’t be able to use my degree! The Covid era created ways to work from home and post-covid continues to offer more and more remote work opportunities,” she explains. “Now I can work remotely, and my age and health will no longer play a part in my job opportunities. As long as I can do the work needed, I can find online/remote opportunities. I’m very excited to be able to do that. Even though I’m a senior citizen, I still want to work as Social Security only gives me a basic living income. I’m excited to find an online opportunity to use my skills and experience for remote work. I’d also like to somehow use the many years of experience that I have in the nonprofit sector.”

But what about the long-term effects of Covid-19? On deep reflection, Christensen says that it changed her life for the better.

“Before COVID I didn’t have any hope for a future. I’m skilled as a writer/editor; I have over 40 years of experience working with non-profit organizations to help them obtain funding; I’m an artist who loves painting and sculpture; and I now will have a degree in Organizational Leadership. I can see a clear direction that includes all those things. So, I’m going to work and do my art for as long as I am able.”

“Life is not stagnant. We learn something every day in some way. Getting my degree will open so many opportunities for me. I’m so glad I never gave up! I’m not too old! I’m not defined or left behind due to my age or health issues! I’m looking forward to the rest of my life being the best of my life and I want to leave a strong legacy from my family!

Her story is another example of Phoenix Rising. In fact, in her final reflections (unprompted), Christensen said, “UWGB’s website says it best. ‘I’ll never stop learning because life never stops teaching. Education equals power. Once you have it, no one can take it away. No one. Education opens doors by asking the hardest questions about justice and peace. Answering our biggest challenges because we can never stop believing. No matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you want to be. What matters most is that we never stop learning because together we rise.’”

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