Not weekly dialysis, or a one-hour drive to attend classes; not the age difference or family obligations could stop two Lipscomb University social work students from fulfilling their dream of holding a college degree in their hands. At the May 3 commencement exercises, held at 2 p.m. in Allen Arena, John McDaniel and Sheila Upshaw are both expected to finally complete that dream after years hard work and perseverance.
McDaniel, 44, spent seven years taking classes two days a week to fit them in between his dialysis treatments three times a week. The Clarksville resident and a military veteran suffers from renal failure, and can only stay alive through the time-consuming treatments. Upshaw, 42, also a military veteran, overcame childhood heartbreaks to succeed in the military and didn’t let her non-traditional student status keep her from jumping into college life with enthusiasm.
In the small class of 2008 social work graduates, both McDaniel and Upshaw brought inspiration and valuable life perspective to their fellow students, said Hazel Arthur, associate professor and chair of the social work department.
“John and Sheila have both poured so much of who they are, and what their life has taught them, into their work with the underprivileged and the hurting. And it is certainly not easy to do that with so many obligations and worries outside the classroom as well,” said Arthur. “They were both awarded with our annual Jeanne Bowman Social Work Award recognizing perseverance and determination in pursuit of professional social work education. I can’t think of two better candidates.”
Lipscomb University’s Class of 2008 was expected to be the largest group of graduates ever:
- 428 students, the largest group ever, walked the stage on May 3;
- 102 masters-level graduates, the largest group ever, walked at graduation;
- The first master’s of accountancy graduates will participate; and
- The first professional master’s of business graduates will participate.
It took more than seven years of perseverance and faith for John McDaniel, 44, to complete his lifelong dream of completing college. McDaniel lost all function in his kidneys in 1999 due to advanced renal failure, so when he enrolled at Lipscomb in 2001, he could only attend classes two days a week because he must go to dialysis three times a week in order to stay alive.
In addition to those constraints, the retired military veteran commutes from Clarksville, and serves as an associate minister in a Clarksville church. Despite a bout with a cancerous tumor in 2005 and a history of congestive heart failure, McDaniel has only missed one semester in seven years due to his health.
God has certainly taken care of him, he said, noting that at one time he was on both the kidney and heart transplant lists. God miraculously healed his heart condition, McDaniel said, and dialysis has kept him going strong with no kidney function.
His says his mother, who fought and beat cancer when McDaniel was just 13, provided a lot of the inspiration to keep him in school when everything began to wear on his weak body. “Watching how she endured that, it made me who I am today,” he said. “When I wanted to give up, I would often think of her.”
And he thinks of his daughter.
“There have been several times when I said, ‘I’m not going back.’ But the next semester, I was back again. I had to keep pressing on, especially because my daughter, a junior at TSU, was determined to graduate before me, and I could have never lived that one down!”
McDaniel earned his associate’s degree from St. Leo University as a young man before joining the U.S. Navy in 1982. He met his wife in Iceland, and worked as an air traffic controller in the Navy.
He was diagnosed with renal failure in 1999 and knew that his kidneys would completely fail him within 10 years. He was inspired to go into social work by his experience at the Veterans Administration with a social worker who was less than compassionate to him during his early illness.
“I bring life experience, and I posses the compassion to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves,” McDaniel said of his new social work skills. “I have a passion to see people overcome, and I have the resiliency to never give up. I’m always able to smile and know there is always another tomorrow.”
McDaniel is the kind of man who inspired others, said Arthur. She tells the story of a fellow student of McDaniel’s who was so touched by his determination in the face of such health problems that she went to be tested to see if she could donate him one of her kidneys. “He has that kind of effect on people,” Arthur said.
Sheila Upshaw has been accused her whole life of “being everybody’s mama.” So she decided maybe she should just go ahead and formalize it. She will graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree in social work and plans to go on and get her master’s in social work as well.
“The younger girls listen to her and look to her for leadership. They think she’s cool,” Arthur said of Upshaw. “She really took on a leadership role.”
In fact, Upshaw, who also has her own family to care for while studying for her bachelor’s, even took on the presidency of the student social work organization: An unusual move for a non-traditional student.
“My classmates laugh at me because I ordered the class ring and everything!” says Upshaw. “Middle school was horrible for me; in high school, I was just there to get the classes and then I went off to work; I moved around a ton in elementary. So I really wanted in college to get the whole student experience.”
Upshaw grew up through most of her childhood with her own mother playing an often distant role, as her parents were divorced and she often lived with other relatives. Traumatic experiences early in her childhood caused her to lash out, and by the time she went to live with her mother as a teen-ager, she was mad at the world. She ran away a couple of times, and eventually rented her own basement apartment at 16.
She worked two jobs at Hardees and Perkins and attended high school. One day, she was so tired, she showed up to work wearing the top part of her Hardee’s uniform and the bottom part of her Perkins uniform.
Almost for lack of anything better to do with her life, Upshaw joined the Army, and that’s when her life turned around, she said. “It changed my life,” he said. “The whole time I found myself just being everybody’s mamma. In the military you are supposed to be really discipline-driven, but I just loved all my fellow soldiers.”
Before retiring in 2005, Upshaw lived in Korea, Germany, Saudi Arabia just after the Gulf War and in various U.S. bases. She worked first as a dental assistant and worked up to administration, coordinating dental offices for military bases.
“While in the military, I dealt with so many different kinds of issues from natural disasters to a mass casualty accident in North Carolina. Everyone always said I was a good listener and a great friend. So I started taking classes in psychology and that led to social work,” she said.
Upshaw would like to work with veterans in her social work career, especially female veterans. There is a growing epidemic of homeless, female veterans, today, she said, and she would like to help solve that problem.
She has also enjoyed her practicum experience at W.A. Bass Middle School, especially as it helped her face down some of her own demons from childhood. “I had to deal with my own issues before I could help the kids deal with their issues, so it’s been a challenge, but it’s been very fulfilling and very healing,” she said. “The kids are great, and, of course, some of them call me Mom.”