One of a growing number: Melissa Akers goes back to school later in life

Local News

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — For years, Melissa Akers worked in the medical field on the administrative side, manning the front desk and setting appointments.

At age 46, however, she decided something was missing and it was time to make a change.

Melissa Akers

“I’m getting older,” Akers said. “Retirement is coming, and the job that I had… I didn’t have any benefits. So I thought I was going to do something different.”

She enrolled at New River Community College, working to get her General Studies Associate’s degree with hopes to become an Occupational Therapist’s Assistant.

She didn’t get into the program, unfortunately, but a new opportunity would present itself when she spent time with a friend whose son experienced a brain injury.

“…and the Respiratory Therapist was in the room, working with him, and I was like, ‘Hmm… that might be something I could do,'” Akers recalled.

With new inspiration and a connection at Radford University Carilion (RUC), Akers got into the school’s Respiratory Therapy program and started in the fall of 2020.

She’s about to wrap up her junior year.

Akers and Pallant observe a respiratory simulation in one of RUC’s labs

“We’re seeing it more and more, people coming back, whether they’re changing to a different career in the middle of their life where they haven’t had a former career and they want to get into medicine or the healthcare field,” said Kathy Pallant, one of Akers’ current instructors and the Director of Clinical Education at RUC.

Pallant goes onto say the curriculum in Respiratory Therapy is rigorous for students, especially those who have to balance home life like Akers.

Right now, Akers is taking four courses, two of which have labs, and has a 12-hour clinical once a week, all of this while working part-time with a husband and kids at home.

Akers works part-time as a caregiver to her friend’s son, the one who had a brain injury.

Akers with her four kids and two grandkids

She and her husband of almost 30 years have four children: three girls, ages 12, 21, and 27, and one boy, age 24.

Though three of the four kids are grown and understand the temporary strain this would put on their mom’s schedule, it was still a tough conversation to have, according to Akers.

“I just basically had to say that you’re going to have to help a little more,” Akers said. “Sometimes they’re a little more willing to help. Sometimes, you know, they have their own things that they want to do; we all do. But we have to do our part.”

She’s achieved balance, so far, but it doesn’t come without teetering from side-to-side.

Akers and her husband will celebrate 30 years of marriage in 2022

“Sometimes I feel like I’m doing well, and sometimes I feel like I’m drowning, I guess. I just have to keep pushing forward, knowing that three more semesters after this one and I will be done.”

“It really puts them into having very good time management skills, be focused and dedicated, all of which Melissa has been, and that’s what they need to succeed,” Pallant said.

With graduation only a few semesters away, as Akers mentioned, she has her sights set on working in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

RUC has a near-100% employment rate for its graduates, and Akers, as well as her instructors like Pallant, feels that she’ll get there when she graduates in 2022 at the age of 50.

“To see her strive for that goal, set her sights on it and then get into that arena, makes us all really proud because we’ve seen how hard they work and what they’ve sacrificed to get to that place,” Pallant said.

Radford University’s President, Dr. Brian Hemphill recently announced that the General Assembly will be allocating, annually, $10 million in base funding to RUC.

The university will be using that funding to bring down tuition for RUC students, from almost $22,000 to $12,000 a year, providing a further incentive to students like Akers looking to make the push at another career.

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