Student overcomes cancer, homelessness on nontraditional route to degree

Shannell Carroll, non-traditional senior in social sciences, plays with her 19-month-old son, Bryson, at Manhattan City Park on Jan. 28, 2016. (Miranda Snyder | The Collegian)

About two years ago, Shannell Carroll, senior in social sciences, was being treated for cervical cancer. Homeless, jobless and without family support, Carroll and her son Bryson, just months old at the time, were living out of a hotel room and their car.

Carroll said she found her way to the New Church of the Living God in Junction City, where she met the woman who became her mentor: Dawn Douglas, safety and occupational health specialist and U.S. Army veteran.

Douglas said Carroll is a different person today than she was when they met.

“She was often weak and sick,” Douglas said. “I met her probably at the lowest point in her life.”

Douglas is the founder of the Eve Restoration Ministry Foundation in Junction City, where Carroll went to seek help.

“When I met her, I thought she just needed resources,” Douglas said. “I soon realized that she just needed help, someone to talk to, someone to believe in her.”

Carroll said she grew up a foster child in Baltimore, Maryland. She attended Wilberforce and Toledo universities in Ohio before eventually enlisting in the Army.

“I don’t have any biological family,” Carroll said. “So (Douglas) is the only person that I consider family besides my son.”

Carroll said she still did not know what she wanted to do with her life, so she enlisted in the Army to help find a direction. After spending four years at Fort Riley, Carroll was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

“I got sick and I was a single mom, so I knew that I just needed to take time to focus on me and my son,” Carroll said.

Carroll said she knew she wanted go back to school but did not want to return to Baltimore because there was nothing left for her there.

Before enrolling at K-State, Carroll said she expected to be challenged.

“It definitely lived up to those expectations,” Carroll said. “I’m up at 5 (a.m.) and I don’t go to sleep until 12, 12:30 (a.m.), then I’m back up at 5 again.”

Carroll said she has a very busy schedule but still makes time for her son every day, and she purposely set up her schedule that way.

“At 4 o’clock, everything stops, and it’s all about him until he goes to bed,” Carroll said.

Carroll’s cancer is now in remission, and she is months away from graduating. She said she has a home, job and purpose and is also the president of the Student Parent Organization in the Nontraditional and Veteran Student Services center.

Carroll said she wants to empower other student-parents to believe that being a parent should not stop them from finishing their degree.

People may have different ideas about what a nontraditional student is, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment patterns, high school graduation status and financial and family status can all characterize a nontraditional student.

Carroll is one of more than 2,000 other nontraditional undergraduates at K-State, according to K-State Nontraditional and Veteran Student Services. In the fall of 2014, 23 percent of the students at K-State, including both undergraduate and graduate students, were nontraditional.

For Carroll, being a nontraditional student is not all bad. She said she thinks she has an advantage over the younger students.

“I know who I am, and I know what I want,” Carroll said. “I know what I need to get done.”

Carroll said now that she is older, she is much more ambitious and can see the “bigger picture” in a way many younger students may not be able to.

She said nontraditional students are usually the most unique individuals in the classroom setting because due to their life experiences, they can offer much more than a student’s perspective. Carroll said she is able to provide advice to some of her peers after what she has been through.

“Although getting my degree is great, I really, really love the fact that I can be of assistance to somebody else,” she said.

After graduation, Carroll said she wants to continue to inspire people and remain a board member of the Eve Restoration Ministry Foundation.

Douglas said many people fail to realize that Carroll is a working student and that she takes care of her son all on her own. Douglas said it has been an “uphill battle” for each of Carroll’s accomplishments, and Carroll’s story is so wonderful and inspiring that she wanted Carroll in the foundation.

Carroll has accomplished a lot but is still humble, said Spc. Chelsi Blahnik, Carroll’s friend and unit armorer at Fort Riley’s Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery.

Blahnik said she and Carroll were in the same unit at Fort Riley before Carroll left the Army. They still see each other a lot, and she even baby-sits 19-month-old Bryson, whom Blahnik’s 7-year-old son adores.

“She is the most kind, loving and supporting person I’ve ever met,” Blahnik said. “I have never met anybody like her.”

Carroll said she does not mind sharing the story of her past.

“If there was any real reason why I’m in college, it’s just to be an inspiration to somebody else,” Carroll said.