By Melissa Mistretta ’15

Like most women in their forties, I have goals I have yet to accomplish. Even though I consider these bucket list items to be priorities, I always find practical reasons to push them aside. I’m happily married, the mother of two girls, and a registered nurse. I have a lot of responsibilities, and I tend to spend the majority of my time and energy on the important people in my life: my immediate family and friends. At times, I have become completely involved in other people’s lives, and not in a healthy way. I have often found myself helping people, as if I needed to fix their dilemmas, and running out of time for myself.

But one day about four years ago, something inside of me clicked. Maybe I finally realized that life was too short, or maybe I was fed up with the “same old, same old” — whatever it was, life was about to change. Here’s how it happened.

“My only regret was waiting as long as I did.”

I had gone to work and arrived just before the change of shift. A few of the day-shift girls were talking about going back to school. Many of the registered nurses, including myself, were graduates of associate degree programs. But educational trends were changing, and nurses who possess bachelor’s degrees were in demand. Higher education was being promoted in the field of nursing like never before. Going back to school to get a bachelor’s degree, one of my priority bucket list items, was the main topic of discussion.

I wasn’t involved in the conversation, but one of the girls, Danielle (who’s a friend as well as a co-worker), asked me a question I’ll never forget: “Melissa, do you want to go back to school?”

I answered, without hesitation, “Yes! Absolutely. When do we start?”

I had no idea the semester was starting in only a few weeks. I had nothing prepared, no transcript, no essay, no application materials.

I asked, “What college?”

When Danielle said, “Wagner College,” I was overwhelmed with emotions — elation, fear, joy, doubt. This was a college I had always dreamed of going to. Wagner has a great program for registered nurses returning for their bachelor’s degrees. The college itself is just beautiful, with such a picturesque campus. It was the perfect place for me to continue my education.

Danielle had my full attention as I took notes about what I needed to do to get the ball rolling. One of the best parts was that my employer would cover the tuition. This wasn’t just going to happen someday — I was going back to school … now.

I remember announcing the news to my family like a proclamation: I had been accepted to Wagner College, and I was starting classes at the end of August. To my astonishment, they were all thrilled for me. There were no questions about where I would find the time, or how this would impact the family; it was nothing but support and love. My mother had her concerns for my well-being because I worked full time, but I assured her I was going to take it slow, only one class at a time, so I wouldn’t burn myself out. The way I had it planned out, I would be done with school in about five years.

This was the real deal: I was running to classes, books in hand, admiring the campus, and loving every bit of it. I was usually the oldest student in the class, with the most life experience. But the other students never made me feel unwelcome, even though I was the same age as their parents. It was a little strange when I was older than the professor, but I got over that and so did they.

Sure, there were some frustrating times and some classes that left me shaking my head, but for the most part Wagner College fulfilled my dreams of what a higher education was all about. I was learning and experiencing a variety of unfamiliar things and had a deep appreciation and respect for this new-found knowledge. Being an adult student is something I highly recommend. Anyone who has a chance to advance their education should take full advantage of this amazing opportunity.

On May 22 of last year, I graduated from Wagner College with my Bachelor of Science degree. It took me four years instead of the originally projected five, because I grew impatient and started taking multiple classes as I neared the finish line. Graduation day was incredible, a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. My mom, who had been very ill at times during my education at Wagner, was well enough to attend the commencement ceremony. This was something I had always wanted Mom to see, and that day she was beaming with pride.

Melissa with family at commencement.
Melissa Mistretta with her mother; her husband, Victor; and her daughters, Victoria and Samantha.

After the ceremony, I gathered with my husband, Victor, and my daughters, Victoria and Samantha, for pictures. We all hugged and joked around. Then Victor said, with tears in his eyes, “You did it, I’m so proud of you,” and we cried together. Right there, in front of picturesque Main Hall, we were a mess.

I wore my cap and gown that day for about 10 hours. I just didn’t want the day to end. I couldn’t believe such a major bucket list item had been crossed off. My only regret was waiting as long as I did, but I have to believe that everything happens in its own time. Going back to college was everything I had hoped it would be and more.

I am eternally grateful to the people in my life who gave me the strength to see it through. Such an accomplishment would have been impossible without the unwavering support of my family, especially my husband. Vic is a gem. Yet, none of this would have happened without the initial spark from Danielle, my greatest inspiration and hero. During many challenging times of family illnesses and uncertainty, she kept me on the path. I could never thank Danielle enough for asking such an important question that changed the course of my life: “Melissa, do you want to go back to school?”

Melissa Mistretta ’15 is a registered nurse in maternity at Staten Island University Hospital. A version of this essay was originally published on HumanDiaries.com.

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