On Saturday, May 4, Mary Miller and 19 other Valencia students will make history, becoming the first students to earn their bachelor’s degrees from Valencia College.
But when Mary was graduating from high school, she chose another direction — one that ultimately led her to Valencia.
After high school, Mary enrolled at the University of Central Florida in the late 1980s, and followed her passion: music. A trombone player, she majored in music performance, minored in voice and even served as the marching band president for the Knights.
But along the way, Mary began wondering how she’d be able to make a living as a music teacher. With those doubts troubling her, she dropped out of UCF and joined the U.S. Navy – as a musician. After going through the Navy’s Virginia training camp for musicians, she was assigned to, of all places, Orlando. And here she played in the Orlando Naval Training Center’s band, playing for the base’s weekly graduations, playing Fourth of July events, playing at Disney and at UCF football games.
But in 1994, when the Navy announced it would close the Orlando base in 1995, Mary found herself at a crossroads.
Although her Navy superiors encouraged her to enter officer training, she had been recovering from back surgery and didn’t feel ready. Besides, her mother – a breast-cancer survivor — lived in south Florida and moving to Jacksonville would take Mary even farther from her mom. Ultimately, “the band went to Jacksonville and I stayed here.”
For a while, Mary managed a music store, but the pay was discouraging. “I thought, ‘I need to find a career that’s going to enable me to survive on my own,’ “ she recalls. After doing some research, she discovered that Valencia College offers an associate in science degree in radiologic and imaging science.
She was intrigued by the field, particularly by the array of possible jobs in the field, from x-ray technician to CT (computed tomography)-scans to MRI technicians. So she signed up and, in May 2001, graduated and landed a job at Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital.
There, she worked her way up from X-ray technician to lead X-ray tech before cross training to become a CT scan technologist. Today, she’s the hospital’s lead CT scan technologist.
And though most of the people in the field have two-year, associate in science degrees, Miller wanted a four-year degree. “Some people have asked me why I want it, and I always said, ‘I want it for me.’ I wanted a four-year degree when I was a music major – and I want one now,” she said.
However, money remained a factor. When UCF offered the four-year radiography degree, the cost of the tuition was higher. So Mary put off enrolling, wondering if the investment of money would pay off in the long run. But when Valencia took over the four-year Radiologic and Imaging Sciences program that UCF had shuttered, Mary was one of the first to sign up.
“I was already familiar with the school and the staff. I knew that the instructors want us to succeed,” she says. “As soon as (Valencia) announced that they were taking over the program, I jumped on it like I was a dog on a bone.”
Valencia’s online program enabled 46-year-old Mary, who works three 12-hour shifts each week, to take classes and do homework at her convenience.
Along the way, she discovered that taking bachelor’s degree coursework changed her outlook about her job. “It broadens your perspective,” Mary said. “Before, it was just a job, not my career. Now I don’t think just about what we’re doing at my hospital. Now I think, ‘Where do we fit inside the community of radiology?’ ”
Still, earning her bachelor’s degree hasn’t been easy. During the past two years, Mary had major surgery and four family members passed away. Yet she persisted.
“It’s been a battle to get this far,” she said. “I’ve learned to be so tenacious. I made up my mind that I will not be defeated by the other obstacles that life is putting in front of me.”
And on May 4, she will walk across the stage at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, and will start a new chapter in Valencia’s history, as one of the first students to earn a bachelor’s degree from Valencia.
Nothing, she says, will prevent her from participating in this commencement.
“You could not stop me,” she says, laughing. “After all this, believe me, I’ll be sprinting like FloJo across the stage.”