Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of stories highlighting Concordia’s 2018 graduates.


One week before Kathleen Merrill was to begin her summer online graduate class at Concordia University Wisconsin, she received devastating news that could have derailed her continuing education plans. Instead, with the unanticipated support from professors and administrators, Merrill soared through her program, and developed skills and strategies that helped her overcome a diagnosis and become a stronger teacher.

In 2015, Merrill, then 24, was a special education teacher at Pleasant Prairie Elementary School in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin when she enrolled in Concordia’s Master in Science for Literacy program online. Shortly after enrolling, Merrill learned that she had a brain cyst that would require two separate surgeries immediately.

During an introductory meeting with a professor, Merrill shared the diagnosis in anticipation that they would agree to delay her program start until after surgery and recovery. Instead, she received encouragement from both her new professor and her student success advisor, Gayle Frisque, to continue as planned.

“I felt supported through the whole process,” says Merrill. “The administrators and professors were wonderful and offered extra support, like presentation material and class notes that I missed, so I could complete the course at my own pace.”

While Merrill finished that summer course, she did take the fall semester off to focus on a complete recovery. She notes that the flexibility of Concordia’s online program made it possible for her to return to her coursework seamlessly when she was ready. That short time away only strengthened her relationship with Frisque.

“Gayle stayed connected with me throughout the entire process,” says Merrill. “She sent emails and letters with words of encouragement and always asked how she could help me. Even though I was a distance learner, she kept me connected to campus and made me feel like a valued part of the Concordia community.”

Merrill plans to stay at her teaching position at Pleasant Prairie Elementary School upon graduation, but credits Concordia for helping her feel more prepared for success in the classroom and beyond.

“I came into the program needing more skills and strategies in my toolbox,” reflects Merrill. “While I am definitely more prepared, what’s more important is that Concordia helped me to focus on my faith and character so that I can better manage the daily challenges that arise in my profession and look to the future when I might want to progress in my career.”

— Lisa Liljegren is assistant vice president of strategic communications within the Office of Strategy and University Affairs.

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