Determination was key to Poppell's success

SAN ANTONIO – The road to graduation was long, hard and tiresome, but last Sunday, all Wanda Poppell had left was a quick trip across the stage as she received her degree from Wayland Baptist University-San Antonio. Not only did Poppell earn a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Education, majoring in human services, but she was also named recipient of the Hector Garza Memorial Award.

The Hector Garza award is given to an outstanding student majoring in human services. Garza was a retired police officer of 25 years who planned to teach high school and return to Wayland to complete a master’s degree prior to his death. Qualifications for the award specify that the recipient be a student who demonstrates a determination equal to Garza’s in pursuing and earning a degree.

Approaching age 60, Poppell wasn’t sure she would ever reach this milestone. She tried several times, but resources and health seemed to hold her back. After quitting once due to a lack of finances and support, Poppell re-enrolled in Wayland in 2000 determined to complete her degree. Her five-year journey, however, was nothing short of a struggle.

Poppell worked a full-time job with the Methodist Mission Home, teaching independent life skills to deaf and hearing-impaired adults, as well as adults with other handicaps. She had to juggle her work schedule in order to accommodate her classes. Not only that, but Poppell’s health took a turn for the worse.

“I attended classes the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Poppell wrote in a statement concerning her nomination for the Hector Garza award.

Poppell took a mid-term exam the night before surgery then completed her minority relations course while taking chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Soon after, Poppell’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and she had to drop out of school to care for her until her death in 2003.

That wasn’t all, however. While receiving treatment for her own battle with cancer, Poppell suffered a bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, leaving her deaf in her right ear and hearing impaired in her left ear. Suddenly, Poppell was suffering from the same handicap that she had worked with for nearly 30 years. She admitted that continuing her education was a difficult decision.

“When I wanted to throw in the towel and give up on my education, my professors, friends and peers gave me the encouragement needed to continue,” she said. “I have to study hard and there were times when I was saying I couldn’t do it. But there was something that kept pushing me on and I’m so glad I did.”

Poppell has made the most of her situation. Overcoming her own hearing loss was difficult, but she was able to adapt better than most people due to her career working with the deaf.

Her classes adapted, also. In classes where students were involved in group discussions, her professor would let her group leave the room to discuss in an area free from other background noise and discussion. Professors showing videos in class would also turn up the volume to accommodate Poppell’s hearing loss. That’s not all.

“They were very supportive if I kept having to ask, ‘What did you say?’” she said.

Poppell also said her situation has given her a new appreciation for what those people she works with are going through.

“It’s frustrating sometimes to have to ask, ‘What did you say,’ or ‘can you say that again,’” she said, “but I feel that I may have adapted better than the average hearing adult because I already had the sign language skills behind me.”

Fortunately, Poppell’s friends all know sign language as well, making communication in certain environments much easier.

Although she’s been through a lot while working toward her degree, Poppell said she is glad she finished and it was well worth the effort.

“In some ways it is easier taking classes as an adult than as a young person because you have lived life and you know some of these things you are reading about in sociology and psychology classes,” she said.

Poppell said her degree in human services will not only enhance her ability to do her current job, but could help her in the future when she decides to retire.

“If I want to work part-time somewhere else, the degree will help me get my foot in the door,” she said.  

For now, however, Poppell is pleased to put her pursuit of education behind her and focus on her job. While she is glad to have earned her degree, she is also happy to leave the strenuous class work and busy schedule behind. The only further education she sees in her future is continuing education credits in sign language and interpreting.

“I’ll continue working where I am,” she said, “with maybe some additional responsibilities.”