RIDGE MANOR — For more than a year, Cynthia "CeCe" Russell crammed a 40-hour week's worth of nursing shifts into her weekends to make time for her classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
That alone would have made for a grueling schedule. But that wasn't it. Not even close.
Her mother suffered a massive stroke, leaving her permanently impaired and forcing her to move into a nursing home. Russell needed an invasive hysterectomy to remove a benign tumor. Her eldest daughter had a premature labor scare. Her youngest was hospitalized twice.
And, just before finals, her 16-year-old Shih Tzu, Tolly, died.
None of that derailed the 50-year-old Russell's drive to get a college degree. It didn't even bump her off the honor roll.
"Couldn't miss an assignment," she said. "That would throw me off the honor roll. I was adamant about honors."
Russell will receive her associate in sciences degree in paralegal studies at PHCC's winter commencement ceremony today, joining nearly 300 on the New Port Richey campus who will accept degrees and certificates.
Russell has always loved learning.
A licensed practical nurse of nearly 20 years, she was happiest working in hospitals, where she was constantly learning and being challenged.
She worked in oncology with cancer patients. She worked in post-critical units. Post-operation units. Rehabilitation. Home health and long-term care. A little bit of everything, she said.
She liked the work. But she didn't think she could keep it up, citing all of the stress and time on her feet.
"You start realizing that you can't do it another 25 years the way I've been doing it," she said.
So about five or six years ago, Russell started to seriously consider a change, though she wanted to switch to something where she could use her base of knowledge.
She landed on a career as a paralegal, seeing it as another way to be an advocate for patients — to work on behalf of people who otherwise might not have a voice.
Her youngest graduated high school in 2008. The next fall, Russell enrolled at PHCC.
She has taken classes at the school and online, but has had her heaviest load during the past 18 months. "Five classes and working 40 hours a week is pretty intense," she said. "All I've had is work and school."
She wants to find a job in a law office — something that will give her a little more leeway with her schedule.
But she's not done with her education. On Jan. 16, she will begin taking classes to get her bachelor's degree in legal studies from Hodges University. She hopes to obtain that degree in two years.
Her children — now 22, 24 and 26 — tell Russell they are proud of her. Not only for going back to school, but also everything she's dealt with.
She said she even caught her son bragging about her and the intense work schedule she maintains.
"I wanted my children to understand that education empowers anybody," she said. "For me, education really says that you've arrived."
In particular, Russell said, she wants to empower other women to go after their degrees, no matter what challenges life tosses their way.
She believes anybody can do it.
"I don't see myself as the exception," she said.
It's been hard, she said, but "it's been a good hard."
Danny Valentine can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him @HernandoTimes.