NEWPORT, R.I. – Diana McKenna knew going back to college in her mid-30s while raising a family of five children – including a 1-year-old – and working part-time as a university shuttle driver would be challenging. The Middletown resident had always dreamed of earning her degree and she was determined to set an example for her children.
But shortly into her senior year at Salve Regina, McKenna, now 41, was diagnosed with breast cancer. And shortly after that, her mom (who had worked as a housekeeper at the university for 20 years) died. Suddenly, her dream of walking across the commencement stage seemed to be slipping helplessly between her fingers.
“I was never prepared to face the challenges that I was presented with last year,” McKenna recalls. “I was worried that my surgery and chemo treatment would affect my education but I was not going to let it take away from my studies completely.”
During a semester in which she was taking some of the more challenging courses in her discipline, she dropped all but one class in order to focus on her health. Today, five-and-a-half years after she started, she stands poised to walk across the stage on Sunday, May 20 and accept her bachelor’s degree in psychology, with honors.
“I did it,” she says. “This degree means so much to me. It is a dream come true to be a graduate from Salve Regina, but it is also a personal reminder of what I am capable of achieving, even when faced with an obstacle like cancer.”
McKenna, who was born in Newport and has lived in Middletown for the last 35 years, is quick to point out that she couldn’t have done it alone. She credits a wide-reaching support network of family, friends, and Salve Regina faculty and staff with helping her to achieve her dream. Her husband Ray, who works in the university’s office of safety and security, was the backbone of her support system.
“I have to say the entire safety and security department staff has been so wonderful, accommodating vacation days, personal days … even swapping shifts so my husband could be there for me when I had medical appointments,” she said. “And my boss, Larry Kestler, was very understanding when I left my job as a shuttle driver to take the time to address my health issues.”
She also credits the university’s psychology department for being extremely supportive. “I was very lucky to have Father Malone as my academic advisor as well as an instructor,” she says. “He was always offering an encouraging word. He made me believe I could do this and go all the way to getting a doctorate. I will always appreciate the faith he showed in me.”
McKenna said a few very strong and courageous women on the faculty reached out to her with their own stories of battling cancer. “They offered their support, encouragement and friendship,” she says. “I also received cards, phone calls and flowers from many other departments at the university who know me personally or know my husband. It was all very touching. I am truly blessed to be a part of such a great community.”
McKenna has been accepted into Salve Regina’s master’s degree program for rehabilitation counseling, but she may put that off for a semester “to allow myself some catch up time.” She is facing one final medical procedure in June and will be looking for steady employment, preferably in the human services field.
“The last year has given me a unique perspective into situations that can cause extreme emotional stress so I would like to use that personal knowledge along with what I have learned in my discipline here at Salve to help others who may be experiencing similar challenges,” she says. “Working in a field where I can accomplish that would be ideal.”