2017 WGU Missouri Commencement Speaker – Rebecca Balfanz

Rebecca Balfanz has overcome a lot of adversity in her life.

Rebecca Balfanz After enduring a rough childhood — growing up in foster care before aging out of the system at 17 — she was determined to create a supportive home and a legacy of education for her own children.

She graduated high school a semester early and enrolled at her local community college in an effort to pursue a degree in education. Not long after enrolling, Rebecca decided to put her college dreams aside after becoming pregnant with her first child — a son. Two years later, she and her husband also welcomed a daughter.

“I left behind my dream of becoming a teacher, for the new dream of being a stay-at-home mom.”

Her children were just 4 and 6 years old when tragedy struck Rebecca’s family. Her husband suffered a massive brain bleed the day after Christmas in 2012 and was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease.

“The quest to save his brain caused his kidneys to fail. My husband being diagnosed as terminally ill forced me to realize I was unprepared to care for our family in his absence. I had always dreamed of being a teacher, and we made the decision to make that dream a reality before it was too late.”

Caring for her husband and children, while also having limited finances, made Rebecca’s dream of going back to school seem unattainable. Everything changed, though, when Rebecca and her husband found WGU Missouri, and Rebecca enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts, Interdisciplinary Studies program.

“We could not believe we found a university that was accredited, non-profit, affordable and would provide a degree that would be respected in my field. The fear of taking that first step was outweighed by the realization that WGU Missouri was the university for me.”

The ability to learn at her on pace, and in sometimes unconventional settings, was imperative to Rebecca’s success. “I spent numerous hours working through courses in our local dialysis center. I was able to get my two children to school and then take my husband to his dialysis treatments. As soon as his treatment was running, I would set my ‘classroom’ up right next to his chair.”

With support from her family, Rebecca was able to complete 53 credit units in her first term. “My family worked hard to ensure I made time to complete my work because it became more than my dream — it became the entire family’s dream. My daughter would sit next to me, pretending to take notes while I worked through my degree plan. We printed a copy of my degree plan, and my son would do a small dance every time I would highlight a completed course.”

Four months into her term, Rebecca’s husband received a kidney transplant.

“I set my coursework down and walked away for two months. The ability to take time off from school to care for him was an incredible blessing in my life.”

Even with that time off, Rebecca, who first came to WGU Missouri with 12 credits, was able to complete her bachelor’s degree in two years. Her degree has allowed her to seek and earn certification to become an educator in Missouri in three different areas. She began working as a K-5 special education paraprofessional, but was recently given the opportunity to teach 4th grade in the same district, starting this August.

“My degree opened the door to full-time employment in a fantastic school district. I was blessed to work with the students and staff of that district every day. I was even more blessed when I was offered a certified position, at the same school, for the upcoming school year. It provides a financial security and stability that my family hasn’t known since my husband's brain bleed changed our lives forever.”

Rebecca credit’s WGU Missouri’s competency-based learning model in preparing her for a career as an educator.

“Competency-based learning was challenging and rigorous, but the ability to study and interact with the material for as long as I needed was pivotal to my success. I knew that every course I was taking would directly relate to my career, so I strived to learn every piece of material and prove mastery of each course. The learning model gave me confidence in myself — I will never doubt if I am qualified for my position.”

The future looks bright for Balfanz. Her husband — once terminally ill — is 100 percent cured, and she will soon start her dream job as a 4th grade teacher. She also realized her goal of instilling a legacy of education in her children.

“Having my children see that I was able to earn a degree, despite all of the trauma and stress in our lives, helped them learn they can and will be successful regardless of the obstacles life throws their way. They know it is never too late to change their lives or live their dreams — anything is possible.”

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