Thursday, April 18, 2013

Featured Learner Series: After battling addiction, grandmother and veteran goes to college and inspires others

OVERCOMING ODDS: Diana Kirkland has overcome many challenges
in her life to earn her college degree at Peirce College
Some people are naturally upbeat and spread their positive energy to those around them. Diana Kirkland -- mother of six, grandmother of three (soon to be four), military veteran, Peirce student, and our next Featured Learner -- is one of them. We recently sat down with Diana to hear more about her story.

Diana first learned about Peirce in the late 1980s when a family member attended the College. Although she was interested in a college degree, she decided to enlist in the United States Navy instead. She served on active duty from 1988 to 1991 and in the reserves from 1991 to 1994, before becoming a mother and raising her six children in Philadelphia.

But life became a struggle for Diana as she battled an addiction to drugs and alcohol. College was still on her mind, and she began an educational program to earn a paralegal certification at Berean Institute. Unfortunately, her addiction didn’t allow her to complete them.

2010 opened a new door for Diana. She got sober and her youngest daughter didn’t need as much care at home, setting her on the path to earning her college degree. Diana attended the TRIO Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) Program at the University of Pennsylvania, a preparatory course for veterans who want to go to college. The program prepares veterans in areas that include math, computers, science, literature, and reading so they’re able to pass college entrance exams.

After a year in the VUB program, Diana’s instructors thought she had progressed enough and was ready for college. Around that time, the program took its students on a field trip to Peirce, and Diana got to know the College’s faculty and staff firsthand through the day’s events.

“I was just really impressed with how the staff reached out to the students and I felt the staff was genuine in wanting the students to succeed,” said Diana. “They all said that they had open door policies and that they would bend over backwards to help us with whatever we needed. They had a bunch of resources available for us to reach out if we needed help, and at that point, I decided that this was the college for me. To me, it’s more like a family rather than a college.”

Jim Mergiotti, Peirce’s President & CEO, specifically stood out to Diana. “The main person who stuck out to me at first was President Mergiotti because he said he has an open door policy and if you need anything, you can always drop by his office,” Diana continued. “[At other colleges she attended] you never saw the president. It was so big and there were so many people, you couldn’t really get to know the faculty and staff besides your professors. When I got to Peirce, it’s intimate and has students who are in the workforce and want to get their degrees. That struck me because I had other things that I was doing at the time and it just seemed like it would really fit into my life. I just really felt like I belonged here.”

Diana enrolled at Peirce in 2012. She’s pursing her bachelor’s degree in Paralegal Studies, and plans to graduate by 2016. In addition to taking her classes, she’s involved in the Peirce Leadership program, is a Work-Study student in the Walker Center, is a Peirce Ambassador, and takes care of one of her grandchildren for a good portion of the week.

She’s enjoying the rigor of her program, and is currently on the Dean’s List. “I enjoy learning about the law and how it applies to people in our country,” she said. “I’ve always been excited about that. As for my program, I enjoy the faculty and staff because they reach out and they are very supportive. It’s not an easy program and I didn’t expect it to be, but they make it so I can understand it and I can relate it to life.”

Diana has found that the professors at Peirce are so supportive; she has even been given help on an assignment over the weekend. “I talked to Professor Ivy Kempf last semester in one of my first paralegal classes,” she said. “I was having a problem with an assignment and I wasn’t really sure of how to handle it, so I called her. I left her a message and she called me back. And because it was the weekend, I wasn’t sure she would call me back, but she did. I was thrilled because it allowed me to get the assignment done.”

She has also gotten involved in her fair share of activities at Peirce. “The Walker Center is my best friend. I come to get my homework done. I felt a connection with the people in the Walker Center, and the next thing you know, I became a Work-Study here as well. Whatever you decide you want to do, they’ll push you to do that. I said that I wanted to be a person that could speak in front of a crowd, so Ms. Juanita Wooten told me to take the communications classes and gave me my first chance at public speaking at an FYI engagement. Whatever I mention that I want to do, there’s somebody here that pushes me to achieve that goal.”

Three years sober and two years into her degree program, Diana has overcome quite a few obstacles on her path to earning a college degree. She has a few pieces of advice for students that she wants to share, whether or not they come from a military background.

Diana feels she was especially supported as a military member at Peirce, and wants to share what she has learned with others. “Sometimes it’s hard for a person to be in the military and then come out and transition back into civilian life,” Diana said. “It’s really hard for military members to do that. But don’t forget that there are a lot of programs and incentives out here for military members to go back to school and to achieve something new. Peirce has lots of information available on its website about the types of support military members can find.”

Diana ended our interview with this thought: “What’s the point in coming to college if you want to just be an average student? I want to be better than average. That’s my motto.” Lucky for Diana, she’s much more than average, and a true inspiration to anyone who thinks earning a college degree is beyond their reach. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Diana!

UPDATE: Diana graduated in '14 with an associate's in Paralegal Studies, and will complete her bachelor's degree in Paralegal Studies in August 2015.