Earning a college degree is a sense of accomplishment for many students and their families. But for one Northern Illinois University student and her family, it was a celebration over adversity.
Gabriela Ruszczak’s journey began in 2009, when she enrolled at NIU as a non-traditional, first-generation student after earning her associate’s degree 20 years earlier.
“I came to NIU thinking I would finish my psychology degree in three years,” said the 57-year-old Rockford resident. The first two years went off without a hitch, then life took over.”
In a span of just 18 months, life dealt Ruszczak a series of blows – the sudden death of her husband, which took her from economic stability to near poverty and eviction; the death of her brother; and caring for her developmentally disabled sister as she battled serious illness. It all resulted in the honors student being academically dismissed from NIU.
While the experience left her emotionally drained, Ruszczak’s faith and the support of her family enabled her to weather the storm and pick up the pieces.
“I had some really intense conversations with God,” she said. “But I still wanted to complete my degree. If I didn’t do this, I’d be washed away in tragedy.”
The old adage, “It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness,” became her mantra. After working with the university to gain readmission and working with her professors on a plan to retake classes, Ruszczak returned to the classroom in fall 2013.
“Coming back was hard,” she said. “I wondered if I could do the work.”
Ruszczak quickly found out she could still perform at a high academic level. Education was her lifeline to a better life.
“In class, Gabi is a powerhouse,” said J.D. Bowers, associate vice provost for University Honors and associate professor of history. “She is engaged, well-read, thoughtful, and always has an ability to make other students think about their own views or interpretations.”
Being the oldest student in class didn’t faze her.
“I used humor to overcome any ‘old’ comments. I was the cool old woman in the class,” Ruszczak said, smiling.
Her toughness has impressed faculty members.
“She has fought back, retaken her classes, and has truly proven to herself and the faculty that she is one of our most capable students when all things are going smoothly,” Bowers said.
But she didn’t just go to class. She was a member of Psi Chi Honor Society, an ally for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students and worked in psychology professor Brad Sagarin’s gender and sexuality lab.
While Ruszczak completed the classes, she is quick to point out that she couldn’t have done it without help.
“My kids always made sure I had a car to get to campus and money for coffee or lunch,” she added.
Ruszczak sought out mentors on campus and assistance from various campus offices. She used a legal aid agency in Rockford to fight for her home and recently had a judge vacate the bank’s adverse possession action.
Not everything she learned has come from a textbook.
I’m a lot tougher than I thought I was,” she said. “I trust myself more. And resilience counts for something.”
In the end, her experience prepared her for a career in counseling. “I understand grief and trauma better,” Ruszczak said. “It changed what I added to class discussions.”
Armed with a degree and a new sense of self-confidence, she has big plans for the future.
“2015 is going to be a transition year,” she said. In addition to looking for employment and enrolling in a master’s program studying marriage and family counseling, Ruszczak will become a grandmother in July.
With all that excitement, she still is focused on her next goal – to work in the nonprofit sector.
“I’d rather leave a bigger footprint than have a bigger bank account,” she explained.
Reflecting on her journey to a degree, it is apparent that her alma mater holds a special place in her heart.
“It was one of the hardest things I ever fell in love with,” she said. “I found myself at Northern. I learned more about myself – my boundaries and strengths. And that it’s always possible to come back.”
To those who have seen her struggle and succeed, she is considered a true Huskie.
“She embodies everything we stand for here at NIU…meeting our students where they are, helping them flourish even under adverse conditions, and setting the stage for a bold future,” Bowers said.