Nancy Green is no stranger to dark times, but as the 56-year-old graduating senior at Southern Connecticut State University lay in a hospital bed this March, deathly sick with the coronavirus, she had a thought she’d never had before.
“My lungs were so tired,” she said. “I had pneumonia, acute asthma. I was in respiratory failure. I had a fever. I felt like I was at the bottom of the ocean, and it was the only time in my life I’ve ever thought, maybe I can’t do this.”
Green had every right to feel exhausted. In many ways, she had been battling her whole life: child abuse, domestic violence, tumors (some in her pancreas, some in her esophagus), breast cancer, financial uncertainty, but the Coronavirus brought her to a frightening new low. She closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
When she woke the next day, it took her eyes a while to adjust to the sunlight. But the sight of the sun through the window brought to mind a refrain she had been repeating to herself since childhood: My eyes can see farther than they can look.
“I said it to myself, and then I said, ‘Girl, you are getting out of here!’ ”
The refrain “my eyes can see farther than they can look” is Green’s own — she first wrote it in her diary when she was 12. “You might see a wall or a building, but there is life beyond that,” she said. “That was my own saying, and I always kept it with me.”
Green also shared it with others, like her friends and classmates at Southern, who affectionately referred to her as “auntie” and “cool grandma.” (Green, a sociology major, is, in fact, a grandmother to a few, but she says when she enrolled at Southern, she “gained another 150.”)
The refrain kept hope alive in Green when, as a child, she dreamed about moving past the abuse and going to college. “Growing up in the south, there was a big emphasis on boys going to school,” she said. “All my brothers got educated, and I told myself, someday, it’s going to come to me.”
In 1984, Green enrolled at Norwalk Community College, but she was just 21 and raising twins, and education took a backseat. In 2016, she enrolled again in community college — this time Naugatuck Valley — and completed her associate degree.
“I thought the idea of getting an education would be out of my system,” she said. “But then I thought, ‘I have a taste. I need more!’ ”
When one of the deans at NVCC suggested she apply for the President to President Scholarship, which would cover full tuition and fees for two years at Southern, Green scoffed, thinking she was too old. She soon got a letter from Southern President Joe Bertolino saying otherwise.
“When I got the scholarship I thought, ‘I’m really going to do this!’ ” Again she repeated her refrain — “my eyes can see farther than they can look” — and thought, “Now I’m going to look a little farther and get my bachelor’s.”
As Green tells it, she fell in love with Southern, which started to feel like a family. She developed close relationships with her peers, despite the dramatic age difference. “The more we listened to each other, the more we gained perspective,” Green said. “I opened up to them, and they opened up to me.”
Bi-monthly, beginning in October 2018, she started making home-cooked meals, complete with dessert, for dorm and commuter students that they could pick up on Mondays. Much like her “grandchildren,” she started with five and ended up with 100.
Green still had dark days. She sometimes had to catch a bus at 5 a.m. in Waterbury to make it to campus on time (it was a 2-hour, 3-bus trip). Books, laptops, and supplies were extra expenses. She struggled with domestic issues of control and abuse. She had surgery in January 2020 then fell ill with the coronavirus in March and again in April. She grieved the loss of close to 30 family and friends from COVID-19. But postponing graduation in May was never an option.
“I will do whatever I have to do to get to where I have to go,” Green said. “The word no doesn’t exist. I had a burning desire in me. I waited 30 years to start my education again, and I didn’t want it to be a dream gone by because I was sick.”
Throughout the winter and spring, while she was recovering, Green kept on track with school commitments by asking for work ahead of time, sometimes months in advance and sometimes working from a laptop in the hospital. Staff at Southern helped if they were able. Medical Director Diane Morgenthaler, for instance, drove a nebulizer from Southern’s Student Health Services to Green’s residence when Green was unable to get one after being hospitalized.
“Dr. Morgenthaler showed me how to use it right there in the parking lot,” Green said. “Because of that act of kindness and love, that kept me from going back to the hospital.”
Roland Regos, administrative assistant in the Office of the President, kept Green’s spirits up by sending her funny memes and encouraging words. To Regos, bringing humor and laughter — “light” — into her darkened world was the least he could do. Regos coordinates the Presidential Student Ambassadors program, and Green has served as one of the Ambassadors.
“Nancy is one of the most driven, dedicated, and kindest people I’ve ever met,” he said. “Her positive attitude is infectious, as is her can-do spirit. She actively mentors and seeks out troubled students in order to help them. “
“She is living proof that age is just a number, that anyone with the right mindset can achieve anything. Her life story has consistently humbled me,” said Regos. “Graduation means so much to Nancy. The pain and suffering she has gone through in order to get herself to the finish line is inspirational.”
Southern will be holding its commencement at a later date, either on-ground or in a virtual setting, but on May 22, Green will throw her own graduation ceremony, complete with a cap and gown and a virtual celebration.
“I have been looking forward to this for a lifetime!” she said. “I am the little train that did, not could. It all boils down to how badly do you want it? And I have wanted this for a long, long time. I have so many career choices. Look beyond the wall. The future is bright.”
Read “‘I am going to walk’: Cancer, coronavirus can’t stop grandmother from graduating SCSU,”
New Haven Register, by Brian Zahn, May 25, 2020