Editor’s note: Through our submission page, we recently received an inspiring story from Valencia College graduate and employee Ashley Daniello. Normally, we use these submissions as a springboard to highlight the success of a graduate, but Ashley handles her difficult, yet empowering story with such honesty and poise that we decided to let her tell it in her own words. If you have a #ValenciaGrad story that belongs on our news site, please submit it here.
To share my story, I need to go back a few years.
It’s senior year, and excitement has fallen over the Coral Glades High School class of 2012. Students are showing off their senior portraits, excitedly waiting for admissions decisions from universities, and preparing for graduation. Each student activity takes on a new meaning for the departing seniors and spirit days become wild and crazy. A bittersweet feeling of anxious excitement hangs in the air as we waited to start the next chapter of our lives. This was my senior year until Feb. 25, 2012, the night of my mother’s accident.
Mom always lived on the wild side of life. She loved being independent, free-spirited, and she loved motorcycles. I was expecting her to be at the show I was in that night, but instead she went to see her friend’s new motorcycle. This was typical for her, so I didn’t think much of it. I would see her at home, I thought – but mom didn’t come home. Instead, my boyfriend at the time received a call from my grandmother. She instructed him to get me in the car and head to North Broward Medical Center. A five-minute drive to the hospital felt like a lifetime. I was silent.
I was still, trapped and paralyzed by the thoughts in my head. No more Mother’s Day. No Happy Birthday. No more silly fights over her not coming to my shows and events. No more being held in my mother’s safe arms when times were tough. Then, I thought of what responsibilities needed to be taken care of: my little brother. I will need to drop out of high school to take care of him. I’ll need to get a job, move to a place I can afford so he can stay in school. I couldn’t rely on anyone else. When times had gotten tough in the past, no one had been there to help. No one was coming now. It was all on me. My dreams of attending college seemed unrealistic now. Was this the end?
We got to the hospital. My mom had been admitted under the name Jane Doe. When I arrived, they couldn’t find her or tell me where her room was until she could be identified. Thirty minutes later, I was informed that I was next of kin; this means my mother’s life was in my hands. I had to approve medicine, procedures, legal decisions and more. A case manager met with me in a private room to explain what happened. He was detailed, explaining that my mother had been riding on the back of a Harley Davidson when a motorist struck them, killing the driver of the motorcycle on impact. He continued to read a witness account, “The woman on the back of the motorcycle launched into the air – higher than the traffic light – and smacked onto the road.” He explained that, when paramedics arrived, my mother was unresponsive, and they had pronounced her dead. Then, a fireman saw my mother’s pupil dilate and tried to revive her. He had saved my mom’s life.
Mom recovered slowly. She was in the intensive care unit for three weeks and in a coma for a month and a half. In that time, I lost the house, I worked to get my brother to and from school, I got a job, and I tried to finish my senior year. In tears, I asked if my mom would be able to go to my high school graduation. Nurses and doctors said no. They said my mom lost short-term memory due to the trauma she had to her frontal lobe. They feared that she wouldn’t be able to talk or walk. They told me I would be taking care of her or would need a 24-hour live-in nurse care for her the rest of her life. I denied all college offers. I thought my dream of going to college had ended.
I felt lucky I could keep my mom, but also sad that she wouldn’t be the same. I remember the day she woke up from the coma. Her eyes looked empty. She was confused when I asked her if she knew who I was. I have never felt a more terrible feeling than my mother not knowing who I was. Mom lived at a physical therapy facility for six weeks. I visited her before school and after school every day. I remember feeling exhausted and alone. No one at school asked. Only a few family members checked in on me and my brother. Everyone’s life had continued and mine just stopped.
Mom came home the week of prom. She was still in a wheelchair, but she was there. I took mom to therapy every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. She went to water therapy on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I wouldn’t let her miss a day even though she was weak. I had to force her to eat. This was my life. I remember the day she took her first steps. I was having an awful day. I wrote a letter to University of Central Florida, my dream school, that I would not be accepting their offer of admission. I was almost angry being dealt these cards. Why me? Why does this have to be hard? Then, the Lord showed me a light. Mom could walk. Mom was there to witness when I received my awards at senior night. Mom went to my graduation.
Mom woke up one morning after my high school graduation and said, “Put me in the car. We are going for a drive.” She wanted to go to Orlando. That’s the day I was first introduced to Valencia College. I pushed my mom around Valencia’s East Campus as we went through the formalities of enrolling. We spent hours in the Atlas Lab and Answer Center. Valencia professionals were helpful, open and – finally – I felt like people could see me. I didn’t have to tell them where I came from or what happened; I just belonged. Mom, still mostly bound to a wheelchair, had called a nearby apartment complex and arranged for a time to set up a lease. We signed it and I drove my mom back home. Returning to Orlando, alone, I went to college. I was beginning to see light in what had seemed a long, dark tunnel. This wasn’t the end.
Valencia was my second chance. I worked three jobs to stay in school while studying full-time for my Associate in Arts degree. Occasionally, I felt burnt out and wanted to give up, but Valencia College wouldn’t let me. I was offered a student leader position in the Atlas Lab, an opportunity that lead to a position with Atlas Technical Support. The supervisor admired my work ethic, but saw my struggle to pay bills and be academically successful. He offered me a part-time position. I no longer had to struggle. This was just the beginning.
I remember the day I received my second offer from UCF, this time through the Direct Connect Program. I was finally a UCF Knight! A year later I was offered a part-time position at Valencia College’s Answer Center. I felt this was now my turn to change lives as a college professional, just as others had done for me. Upon graduating from UCF with my Bachelor of Arts in Advertising and Public Relations, I was offered a full-time position in the Answer Center where I have continued to make it my mission to see individuals for who they are. I listen and provide encouragement through advising. To further assist students, I have continued my education through the University of Miami’s online master’s program. My next goal: pursue a new dream to enhance the student experience and the student services model.
For now, I strive to impact others through mentorship, guidance and management: by remaining active
in the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA); helping federal work-study students at the Answer Center realize their true potential; and serving as a Horizon Scholars mentor to a student at Boone High School (who has been accepted to all universities to which she has applied). Giving back to Valencia College and the community is my way of showing gratitude to an institution that has saved, molded, and changed my life in many ways. To my advisors, professors, colleagues, and managers: Thank you. Valencia College has been my saving grace.
My advice for people who think it is the end: It is NEVER the end. When life gets tough (and it will get tough) and you feel like giving up, remember someone is there to listen to your story. We all have a story, and we must all tell our stories, because that’s what makes us who we are. Take pride in who you are and where you came from; this is your strength. Believe in your ability; this is your future. Have faith; this is your superpower. Only you can make your dreams come true, and no one and nothing can take those dreams away. The decision is yours.