Susan Wesely’s journey to earning a bachelor’s degree began in 1972. This December, it’s finally coming to a close.
After dropping out of college 48 years ago, Wesely, a longtime receptionist in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Office of Student Involvement, will receive her diploma Dec. 19 alongside 1,400 other Huskers. The former staff member went back to school in 2016, discovering a passion for Great Plains studies and overcoming numerous hurdles along the way.
“Being a college graduate means a lot to me personally, because I really didn’t think I could do it,” said Wesely, who retired from the university last April. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Wesely began working in the Student Involvement Office in 2007. While at Nebraska, she survived multiple cancer diagnoses.
“I had three different kinds — the one on my face was stage four. Then, a year after that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That one wasn’t as bad because it was caught early,” Wesely said. “A couple of years after that, I had a hysterectomy, and they found cancer there, too.”
After beating her cancer, Wesely stumbled across a unique degree path that appealed to her love of history.
“One day I checked out some majors for the heck of it, and I noticed that there was a Great Plains studies major. I thought, ‘If I would have had that back in the ’70s, I might have finished college.’ At that point, what I was taking didn’t really interest me at the time,” Wesely said.
The idea of going back to school lingered in Wesely’s mind until a card she received at a leadership meeting inspired her to take action.
“I tacked mine up by my desk,” Wesely said. “It said, ‘Stop asking yourself whether you can or should — think of how you might.’ Every day I would see that card, and then one day, it just kind of clicked. Instead of sitting there thinking, ‘Well, I’d like to go back…’ I work at the university, I get credit for education if I want to — now would probably be a good time, because I wasn’t getting any younger.
“I mentioned it during a one-on-one with my boss, Veronica Riepe, and she got on the phone right away with Tony Lazarowicz. Before I knew it, I was getting my transcripts from my high school, and then I registered.”
The road to earning a degree certainly wasn’t easy. Wesely contracted a staph infection in summer 2016, missed classes and came close to quitting altogether — but a conversation with Riepe convinced her to keep going.
“(Veronica and I) had one of those meetings, and she said, ‘You should go, you should do it, you’re not sick anymore,’” Wesely said.
“She was my biggest cheerleader all through this. She was always asking me how school was going and how my grades were. The times that I felt really down, she pushed me and kept me going.”
Going back to school meant relearning subjects she hadn’t touched in decades, as well as balancing schoolwork with her full-time job and family obligations.
“Spanish was really hard for me, because I’m getting older, and it’s really hard for me to remember some of those things,” Wesely said.
“I gave up a lot on the weekends so I could study. I feel bad because I missed a lot of my grandkids’ things, but we make up for it now.”
Despite those challenges, Wesely said her degree’s interesting course material made the journey worth it.
“I like the history of the area I live in,” she said. “That’s mainly what I took it for. I was thinking I’d learn about Nebraska and Kansas, but the Great Plains go clear up to Canada and clear down to Texas. I learned about all these places in between, and the Native American people who lived here. I found that extremely interesting.”
Wesely hopes her perseverance serves as an example for her children and grandchildren.
“With all my cancer and medical conditions, I really wanted to show them that you can get knocked down several times and pick yourself back up and go,” Wesely said.
And, even in retirement, she’ll still find pride in calling herself a Husker.
“It’s more than wearing red on football game day,” Wesely said. “It’s an attitude. I found the office that I worked in to be one of the most inclusive and diverse places that I’ve ever worked. It was a learning experience almost every day.”