From traumas to triumph, RCBC grad overcomes incredible odds to earn her degree
Thursday, Jun 10, 2021

Lula Wilson

One can learn a lot in six decades. As time passes and experiences accumulate, our biggest hope, however, is to grow. It’s no different for Lula Wilson. At 60 years old, Wilson, who just walked in Rowan College at Burlington County’s Liberal Arts commencement ceremony, has undergone an extraordinary evolution, propelled by many circumstances beyond her control. 

Wilson, of Riverside, possesses a level of strength and willpower that’s rare. When she decided to pursue her college education, she decided that nothing would stand in her way. Domestic assault didn’t stop her. The untimely passing of her son didn’t stop her. Even cancer didn’t stop her. 

As a single mother of three sons Tyrone C. Smith (first born), Marcus J. Smith and Michael A. Smith, Lula waited until her youngest son entered college before enrolling herself. 

“Deciding to go to school helped me through so many things,” Lula shared. “Before I started, I was the victim of an extreme domestic violence incident which resulted in the perpetrator being incarcerated for attempted murder. I was able to share this story in my psychology class, and it really helped me to cope. That’s another reason why I’m so grateful for school because it helped me to remember and work through things I was having problems with.”

Beyond the domestic violence incident, Wilson was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2018. The following year, her son Tyrone sadly passed away in October 2019, at just 38 years old. 

“He was always getting on me about how long it was taking me to get my diploma, and it was a little joke that we shared,” Lula said. “I believe in angels, and he came to me and said ‘Mom, you’ve worked too hard. You need to finish.’ That gave me the inspiration to keep going. He was on me about it, and today I'm really grateful because it gives me more of a push. I know he’s just so proud.”

Wilson did more than simply push through. Her treatment regimen included two surgical procedures and required her to receive in-office chemotherapy treatments that extended to home, as she was connected to an IV bag that she wore for several days after. Wilson would attend evening classes at RCBC while connected to her IV bag. 

“That was the challenge -- to come to school with a bag on me because I had to carry it, but that’s when the determination set in that I had to set the bag aside and focus on completing my class,” Lula said.  

As her treatments progressed, Wilson experienced discoloration in her fingers and toenails and loss of hair. But, she never gave up, and she never lost her drive. Her prognosis is steadily improving, and she says she feels more like herself with each passing day. She’s now proud to add an associate degree in business to her resume, and she looks forward to pursuing a 3+1 degree in Criminal Justice. 

“You have to understand that life is not always sweet; life gives you things to help you grow, and I believe everything I’ve been through was a stepping stone to help me get to where I am now,” Wilson said. “I feel like God’s blessed me, and it’s a story for someone to hear.”

As for her experiences as a nontraditional student at RCBC, Lula claims it exceeded her expectations, and she even earned Dean’s List status in 2018.

“I was a little nervous about the age difference, but no matter whether I was outside enjoying the weather, in the classroom, or walking the halls, people here always helped me and made me feel ok,” she shared. “I never felt like I was older or anything, and that’s from the beginning to the end. I could never say that a student made me feel unwelcome. They were always willing to help me, and I was always included. That was a big thing for me because I initially thought ‘I’m too old, and I’m going to be surrounded by all these young people.’ That was really appreciated, and it made it easier.”

As for her advice for the younger generations, Lula emphasizes if you believe in it, it can happen. 

“You just have to want it, and don’t let anything stop you,” Wilson said. “We all go through things in life, and don’t let the things that you go through stop you from getting your education. I failed Algebra twice, but I didn’t quit. You just have to stay with it no matter what. I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother, my son passed, and even though it was hard for me, I went for it.”

During her free time, Wilson enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, attending church, gardening and walking. As a survivor of so many things, she proves that life is full of chances, and it’s never too late to switch gears; you just have to be willing to embrace change.