Campus and Community

Grads with Grit: Students Overcome Odds to Earn Degrees

“Gator Grit” is a term coined during the past year to acknowledge the determination and commitment of University of Houston-Downtown community members. It often is applied to those on campus who overcame insurmountable odds to achieve their goals.

Two students who embody this description are Denetta Bailey and Anissa Veal. Both will earn their bachelor’s degrees this weekend during UHD’s 63rd Commencement Ceremony on Dec. 16, even though the odds weren’t stacked in their favor.

Denetta Bailey

At 64, Bailey will be the oldest bachelor’s candidate to accept her degree at Minute Maid Park on Saturday. The native Houstonian will walk the stage along with more than 2,100 graduates although she once thought that would never happen.

Following a medical mishap several years ago, Bailey was paralyzed from the waist down and endured grueling therapy to walk again. She’s back on her feet and ready to accept her Bachelor of Science in Psychology.

“It was devastating,” Bailey said about her one-year struggle to walk again. “After I started walking again, I wanted to get out and do something … and I did. I went back to school.”

Bailey worked her way through school and ultimately graduated with an associate’s degree from Houston Community College (HCC). An HCC counselor encouraged her to look into a bachelor’s program, and she was intrigued by UHD’s psychology program.

“I had taken some psychology classes at HCC and also had worked with homeless populations,” she said. “I previously worked at a telecommunications company that provided more than 1,200 homeless people with career opportunities. I was one of the people tasked with training them to serve as service representatives, and I enjoyed helping them get a second chance in life. I thought that’s what I want to do. I want to help other people.”

Anissa Veal
Photos: Thomas B. Shea

Like Bailey, Veal had to overcome the odds to complete her academic journey. After attending a university in her native Louisiana, the 49-year old Veal took time off to work and raise her three sons. She worked for 17 years in a federal land acquisition and relocation program, but was laid off. Adding to her challenges was a Stage 1 cancer diagnosis in 2011.

“I tell people all the time that it’s all about your attitude,” Veal said. “I wasn’t going to let it stop me from living.”

Regardless of any obstacles, Veal remained a strong parent and focused on her recovery. She also returned to college and completed her associate’s degree at Lone Star College (LSC) – Kingwood in 2016. She then enrolled at UHD while working three jobs. Now, she is set to earn a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies. Most importantly, she is  now cancer free.

“This degree is just the beginning…the sky is truly the limit,” she said.

Veal and Bailey are prime examples of Gator Grit and reflect the UHD’s commitment to its transfer students. Through partnerships with community colleges, such as HCC and LSC, students have opportunities to seamlessly transition from associate’s programs into undergraduate majors at UHD. Those seeking to continue their studies at UHD benefit from resources and events, like Transfer Thursday, which offers admission counseling, information on scholarship opportunities, and advising.

“I congratulate both Ms. Bailey and Ms. Veal on their academic accomplishments,” said UHD President, Dr. Juan Sánchez Muñoz. “Their respective stories reflect a sense of resiliency found in many of our students, and I look forward to seeing them finish UHD strong during this weekend’s commencement ceremony.”