Wayland awards diploma early to student with terminal leukemia

Donetta Stewart's one major dream while enduring chemotherapy and cancer treatment was to receive her college degree.

On Saturday, Sept. 1, that dream came true when Wayland Baptist University presented a Bachelor of Business Administration degree to Stewart, a 23-year-old student at the Plainview campus, in a special ceremony just one day before she lost her battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

During Saturday's brief ceremony, nearly 65 friends, church members and former teammates gathered to witness Stewart's graduation. Armes called the Stewarts "an example of everything that is good about Wayland."

A survivor of lymphoma while a young child, Stewart was diagnosed with ALL in the spring of 2000. She'd been through chemotherapy that took a toll on her physical strength. She'd also considered other treatments, including a bone marrow transplant, but odds of success were low and a suitable donor could not be found.

Carrying a portable morphine pump, Stewart had enrolled for 13 hours this fall semester to complete the ten hours she lacked toward her degree. Fellow Wayland student Daniel Almsted, who works at Plainview Christian Academy with Stewart's husband Larry, approached Plainview president Dr. Paul Armes about the possibility of awarding the degree early in light of Stewart's special circumstances.

"The administrative team in Plainview discussed the possibility and thought it should be done. Dr. (Wallace) Davis, our chancellor, also was very enthusiastic that this should happen, so we went forward with plans for a ceremony," Armes said. "One of the neat things about Wayland is that we're willing to be creative when it comes to special situations."

After setting the wheels in motion for the necessary elements of the ceremony - including ordering the diploma itself - Armes then visited with Mark Murdock, chairman of Wayland's board of trustees. Murdock not only approved the move but also said that he'd like to be present to confer the degree much like he has done at previous commencement ceremonies.

Officially, Stewart's transcript will reflect hours credited for "life experience," a common practice with the university's Bachelor of Science in Occupational Education degree, primarily awarded at its 11 external campuses.

"This is our acknowledgment that not only is she an excellent student, but she is very deserving of this honor," Armes said. Stewart had maintained a 4.0 grade point average in her last three semesters, despite undergoing rigorous treatments.

The Stewarts have a daughter, Haven, who is 2 ½. They are members of Harvest Christian Fellowship, which has been supportive of the family by holding fundraisers to help offset medical costs.

Funeral services for Stewart will be held Wednesday, Sept. 5 in Plainview, with burial following in Amarillo. Stewart is a native of Canyon and is the daughter of Preston and Jenny Bingham of Amarillo.