KOKOMO, Ind. — When Lisa Rhoades crosses the stage and accepts her diploma during Indiana University Kokomo’s Commencement, it will be a victory 20 years in the making, and a tribute to never giving up.
“I almost can’t even grasp that it’s real,” said Rhoades, who will receive a Bachelor of Science in Business. “It’s been the one thing that I needed to do to feel like I had fulfilled my dreams. I had so much potential, and it was the one thing I felt I should have done that I hadn’t. I’ve never been so excited about anything.”
She’s overcome a lot of obstacles to get to this day, and says professors who refused to let her quit when times were hard played a role in her success.
“They’ve all been so helpful and supportive,” the Lebanon resident said. “There will never be enough words to say the impact they had on my life. The gratitude I have for them is just overwhelming.”
The odds were stacked against her from the beginning. Rhoades lost both of her parents before she turned 15, and spent time in children’s homes before finally settling into a foster home to finish high school. She graduated with honors as a ward of the state, and had funding to pay for college, so she enrolled in a private college. That came with its own challenges, including having nowhere to go during semester breaks, with no family.
“I started to feel like a charity case all the time, so I tried to get my own apartment and still go to school,” she said. “Living and paying bills became more important, so I dropped out, and things spiraled from there.”
Eventually she became addicted to drugs, but later hit rock bottom, losing custody of her children. She fought back in rehab and, after three or four years of sobriety, thought again about her dream of a college education.
She enrolled in IU’s online degree program, choosing Kokomo as her home campus because of the friendly people there who helped her get started. There were more challenges ahead, as she began in the spring 2020 semester, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Rhoades began classes with three young boys at home also learning remotely, while she and her husband continued working, installing cabinetry in medical facilities — which qualified them as essential workers. Both contracted COVID early on, and as she found herself behind in classes, she considered withdrawing. Her finite math professor refused to allow it, offering an incomplete instead, giving an extension for more time to complete the class. She was able to get incompletes in two other classes, and finished them within the extended time.
Her senior year, her husband suffered an extended medical crisis, which meant Rhoades did most of her class work by his bedside in the hospital, or nearby while he healed at home. Again, professors offered flexibility, giving extensions on deadlines, and calling or texting to check in with her.
“None of them suggested this wasn’t the right time for me to be in school,” she said. “All of them said they would do whatever they could to help me get through this.”
Gloria Preece, assistant dean of the School of Business, and assistant professor of personal financial planning and marketing, was impressed with Rhoades’ persistence.
“It’s been an honor having Lisa as a student in several of my classes,” Preece said. “She excelled academically and consistently exhibited discipline, dedication, and a genuine love for learning. What is most impressive about Lisa is her resolute and unwavering commitment to her education. I am confident Lisa will be as successful in life as she was in the classroom.”
Rhoades is proud to graduate with a 4.0 GPA, and as the outstanding Bachelor of Science in Business Administration Online student. She’s also pleased by the example she’s set for her sons.
“They know what my life has been like,” she said. “For them to see me come back from that, it just shows if you take one tiny step in the right direction, God will move mountains to show you are going the right way, and it’s worth the struggle.”