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Perseverance pays off for college grad

Krystle Wagner • May 7, 2018 at 12:00 PM

Walking across the stage during Grand Valley State University’s commencement ceremony was an experience Alyssa Hartley will never forget.

Ten years after beginning post-secondary education, Hartley, 28, double majored in comprehensive science and arts for teaching and special education, and earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree. She also graduated Magna Cum Laude with a GPA of 3.94.

Hartley halted her education in 2010 following her mom’s cancer diagnosis.

After graduating from Spring Lake High School in 2008, Hartley attended Indiana Wesleyan University. At the end of her second year of college in 2010, she learned her mom had a mass, which they initially thought was on her pancreas.

“It made my whole world spin upside down,” Hartley said.

Hartley was in the midst of finals and couldn’t focus and felt helpless, and she wanted to nurture and take care of her mom. She was four hours away from her parents, Deb and Rich Stinehart, in Spring Lake.

Hartley determined that, at the end of the semester, she would move home and help her mom, who was diagnosed with large-B cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Deb Stinehart had mixed emotions about her daughter’s decision. While didn’t want her daughter putting her education on hold, Deb said Alyssa is a caring and nurturing person, so she understood.

Hartley took her mom to appointments and created spreadsheets to keep track of visits and medications.

Hartley, who was 20 at the time, also used a website called CaringBridge to help keep people updated about her mom’s appointments and journey.

Deb Stinehart started her first chemo treatment at the Johnson Family Cancer Center in Muskegon on June 4, 2010. She was determined to be cancer-free in November 2010.

Hartley said her mom’s faith in God was inspirational.

When Hartley moved back to West Michigan to help her mom, she continued dating Chris Hartley, who lived in Indianapolis. Chris said that both Deb and Alyssa are optimistic people and look for the positive in their experiences.

Alyssa worked as a paraprofessional at the Ottawa Area Center for a year before marrying Chris in July 2013 and moving to Indianapolis.

While the couple lived in Indiana, Alyssa worked as a Title 1 teacher assistant, which she said reaffirmed her love for teaching and sparked her passion to finish her degree and have a classroom to call her own.

Wanting to be closer to family, Chris and Alyssa moved to West Michigan in 2014. Still, Alyssa said she was faced with paying non-resident costs at Grand Valley State University because she spent the previous year living out of state.

To save money, Alyssa took night classes in 2014 while having a long-term substitute job in Zeeland. Once the year passed, she enrolled full-time in classes and was determined to finish in 2018, even though she was slated to graduate in 2019.

Alyssa said they have plans they want to pursue, but they wanted to wait until she was finished with school.

To reach her goal, Alyssa took summer classes and 19 credit-hour class loads a few times. She said there always seemed to be room for her in the classes she needed and they were offered at the right times.

Alyssa said she worked hard but also had great professors.

Chris also encouraged her to remain in college, overcome challenges and supported them financially so she could focus on school, Alyssa said.

Graduation was a “whirlwind,” Alyssa said. And it included a surprise visit from her brother, Kevin Stinehart, who flew in from South Carolina.

Although Alyssa graduated April 28, she will finish her final student teaching position in June, and she’s in the process of applying for jobs. This summer, she will teach at the Ottawa Area Center.

Watching Alyssa walk across the stage at graduation, Deb said she unexpectedly became emotional as she was filled with pride for her daughter’s accomplishment.

Deb said she believes that Alyssa was able to do it with the support of their church family and God.

Deb said it wasn’t a surprise that her daughter pursued teaching because she can recall a young Alyssa playing school with stuffed animals, but she was touched that she pursued a special-education major following her own career as a paraprofessional.

Looking back at the past several years, Alyssa said she can see how God moved in the experiences, and it was God who helped her reach the final step.

If other people are considering going back to college, Alyssa encourages them to try it.

“You’ll be shocked at what you can achieve,” she said.

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