For seven years, Rebecca Francis had watched other people celebrate their May graduation day on social media. This past May, it was Rebecca’s turn to rejoice in all she had accomplished and overcome to reach that pinnacle moment.
The Rockford, Illinois, mother of two realized a lifelong dream when she crossed the stage at Upper Iowa University’s Fayette Campus, receiving her Bachelor of Science degree. Among the family and friends helping Rebecca celebrate that special day were a few of the people who inspired her success, husband Pastor Justin Francis and the couple’s two daughters, Bella Nichols-Francis and Bryelle Francis.
“I left college without a formal goodbye earlier in my life to be a parent,” Rebecca said. “I didn’t get to finish or walk with my graduating classmates at that time. Being able to enjoy that experience this past spring made my heart very happy. I owe UIU a huge thank you for helping me refocus on my education and regain the confidence I needed to reach my career and lifetime goals.”
Rebecca was attending Alabama A&M in 2012 when an emergency delivery was required in the birth of her first child, Bella. Diagnosed as suffering from myasthenia gravis (pronounced my-us-THEE-nee-uh GRAY-vis) with apnea, Bella required an extended two-week stay in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Myasthenia gravis is characterized by weakness and rapid fatigue of any muscles under an individual’s voluntary control. There is no cure for the disease, which is caused by a breakdown in the normal communication between nerves and muscles.
With Bella suffering from life-threatening swallowing and breathing issues, Rebecca moved back home with her parents, Louis and Sharon Malone. Monthly stays at the hospital were common during the first year due to Bella’s ongoing health issues. Then shortly after her first birthday, things took a turn for the worse when Bella was readmitted to the hospital and placed on life support.
“I will never forget sitting next to Bella, reading my biology book and trying to concentrate on my studies,” Rebecca said. “The nurses would help me with my homework while Bella battled through the hardest times. It was at that point that I realized I couldn’t handle it all anymore. I had to make a choice, either be a supportive parent or put myself first. It was a no brainer. I put my daughter first.”
Approximately six months would pass before Bella was released from the hospital. However, Bella remained on life support and continued to need the care of an in-home team of nurses and supply of hospital equipment.
“I remember many times lying on the floor in anticipation of any sign that Bella would be able to breathe on her own,” Rebecca said. “I knew right then that my decision to forego my education was in God’s divine plan for me. Two years later, God blessed me with a very supportive husband. Not only did Justin initiate the conversation that I return to pursuing my education, but he learned to care for Bella so that I could do so.”
Rebecca noted Bella still requires ongoing attention by trained caregivers. Justin became a state caregiver for Bella, along with his mother, Michelle Francis-Bell. With the family making Bella’s care a team effort, Rebecca turned to UIU to finish her degree. Both grandmothers watched the children while Rebecca attended classes, and Justin cared for the children when he came home from work.
Now 28, Rebecca initially chose to attend UIU because it offered her the flexibility to be a student, wife, mother and full-time professional. She found finishing what she had started to be extremely fulfilling.
“I loved returning to the classroom,” she said. “There hasn’t been one UIU professor that didn’t want to help me become the winner I longed to be. Whenever I reached out for assistance, there was a group of hands ready to respond. Each of my professors contributed to my success.”
During her junior year at UIU, Rebecca gave birth to Bryelle over the winter holiday break. Not to be deterred from her education, she took a UIU online course and successfully maintained a 4.0 GPA over the following session. While pursuing her degree, Rebecca also continued working at Jackson Charter School in Rockford, where she now serves as the school’s operations manager.
“Every day I shared something new that I learned at UIU with my (Jackson Charter) supervisor,” Rebecca said. “I was afforded the opportunity to hold an administrative role in our company prior to earning my degree. I took the knowledge I obtained at Upper Iowa and applied it to my real-world learning experiences.”
During the May 4 UIU commencement, Rebecca proudly earned a business administration degree, with a concentration in human resources and a minor in criminal justice. However, she is not letting her educational goals end there as Rebecca plans to obtain an MBA.
“I am so thankful for the many sacrifices my family has made to see me succeed,” Rebecca said. “I walked across that stage not only for me, but also for my children. I am proud to have the opportunity to show them that no matter what life throws at you, you need to capture every moment and run with every one of your goals.”