This Student Stopped Doubting Herself and Found Her True Potential at UVU

“Am I going to let this kill me?”

Three years ago, Kaitlyn Russell woke from a long trance with those words in her mind. It had been a bad couple of months. She’d dropped out of college in the middle of her sophomore year. She was just 19 years old and felt ill equipped to handle the pressures of a full course load, a full-time job that turned into two, and the financial hurdle of trying to afford tuition at an east-coast school. But it wasn’t that Russell couldn’t handle the courses or the work.

“The year I dropped out of school, I had found out I was pregnant,” she says. “I was pretty far along when my doctor told me I’d lost the baby. Everything after that became a blur.”

She moved back home, but nothing comforted her. “I just kept thinking, ‘How could this have happened to my baby? She was fine one day, and now she's not.’”

She blamed herself for her loss, thinking that maybe the two jobs, the classes, and the stress had been too much for her body to handle.

“I don’t know how I survived that time,” she says. “But then I woke up from that blur and thought, ‘Am I going to let this kill me? Or am I going to overcome it?”

It didn’t happen that day, but slowly Russell began to rebuild. She adopted a dog who forced her to get out for walks, and who ultimately helped her heal. Then, another change: Utah’s reputation started to lure her west. “There isn’t much opportunity or economic hope in rural South Carolina,” she says. Looking for a fresh start, she packed up her dog and moved to Salt Lake City. She was just looking for a job and tried to put college far out of her mind.

“I think psychologically I’d associated school with the loss of my child,” she says. “I was scared to go back because it was so traumatic. Leaving school was traumatic too.”

She did get a job, as a service writer working with big trucks. But a year and a half into her new Utah life, she stumbled across an article about how affordable tuition is at Utah Valley University. Looking at the article, she thought about her academic career to that point. She remembered how back in high school she had thought law school might suit her, but her mother had told her she didn’t have the grades. Then she thought about her first attempt at school and how, despite the challenges, she’d fallen in love with philosophy. The concepts of reason and ethics became a passion that she often explored, even without structured classes. She wondered if UVU had a philosophy degree.

Still, Russell had reservations. She felt it might be overwhelming, both emotionally and financially. She’d have to pay out of pocket, and even with low tuition, the cost seemed enormous. Plus, it had been four years since she’d stepped into a classroom. But she saved. Then, she fought through nausea-inducing anxiety. And in summer 2018, she forced herself to register for fall classes.

“My advisor pushed me to enroll in some very upper-level philosophy courses right away,” says Russell. “I loved the classes. I got all A’s that semester. It made me realize that I’m a lot more capable than I ever gave myself credit for. I’d always thought of myself as an average student but never an excellent student. That started to change.”

With a 4.0 GPA and some guidance from professors, Russell saw that law school could be a realistic goal. “I was pushed to my limits but helped along the way” she says. Her self-doubt waned. She applied for, and received, the Mary Paxman McGee Endowed Scholarship, awarded to capable students who are gearing up for law school. It helped fund her second year.

“I feel like scholarships are exactly what kids like me need to get back to school or to stay in school. It allows us to become who we want to be,” Russell says. “It makes a big difference, because college is not affordable for everyone — getting the scholarship has been a huge weight off my shoulders. I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to afford the next payment.”

Russell needs to complete three more full semesters before graduation and plans to make the most of her time at UVU. Although she still mourns what happened during her first experience at college, she takes pride in how far she’s come and her resilience. Law school is her next stop. From there, she plans to fight racial injustice as a public defender.

“I can't even believe how fortunate I've been here,” she says. “Getting back to school, and especially being at UVU, has been a turning point in my healing process. Every teacher I meet, my advisor — every single person has been wonderful and encouraging, and I’ve needed that for a really long time.”