Lela Nickell, ’84, sat back in her seat at the Stubblefield Center with tears streaming down her face.
“I didn’t realize how much I wanted it until then,” she said.
As she watched the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith students cross the stage and graduate, Nickell knew she wanted her bachelor’s degree. She told her husband that watching them made her want to go back to school. He reminded her that she couldn’t quit her job.
That is when the tears started to flow.
Nickell never planned on the almost 30-year hiatus from pursuing her bachelor’s degree. She graduated from Northside Christian Academy in 1981 and started studying at Westark Community College in 1982. After earning her associate’s degree, she and her brother planned to transfer to the University of the Ozarks.
Then plans changed. In a family conversation, their mother, a single woman, worried about working and caring for the siblings’ brother, who has Down’s syndrome. Nickell’s mother said her son should pursue his education, as it was more important for a man.
“That was probably the only wrong thing she said to me in her entire life,” Nickell said.
Nickell agreed to stay home for one more year. She continued her studies at Westark and helped her mother and brother.
Then life happened. She met a wonderful man, whom she married the following year. Then came two sons. She taught piano lessons and music classes for 30 years.
“I don’t regret my marriage. I don’t regret my kids. I’ve been able to do a lot of things,” she said. “What I gained from Westark, I used.”
Then came the tear-filled graduation ceremony and the realization of how strongly she wanted her bachelor’s degree. She decided to see what might be possible. She filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. She applied for scholarships. She auditioned for UAFS’ music education program, planning to be a vocal major.
Then began doors opening for her to finish her education journey. She was accepted into the UAFS music program. She received notification that she’d been awarded the Pauline Plummer Scholarship. She enrolled at UAFS in the fall of 2014.
“I think it’s amazing that people taker hard earned money and invest in other people,” she said.
Through that scholarship, she could keep her part-time position at UAFS’ testing center, and it brought financial relief for tuition, books, choral dresses, music and more.
“I just haven’t had to worry,” she said.
Now, Nickell has discovered that she can learn new technology and do the mental gymnastics required by the schoolwork. She’s found a new family in the music program. She’s also found something else. Nickell recalls Proverbs 13:12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
“I’m walking around with a smile all the time,” she said. “I always meant to come back and I’m just so thankful that I can.”
She’s now pursing her dream of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the fall of 2015 and then pursuing a master’s degree in music therapy to give back to the community, “if the Lord gives me time, energy and money.”