By Jonathan Heeter

Celeste Harrell had the itch to return to college for a while.

A longtime federal employee for Customs and Border Control, she selflessly put off her dream several times after financial issues caused her to walk away from college shortly after high school.

She had a full-time job. She and her husband just bought a house. And she had twin girls, whose success became her driving force. 

“Good excuses,” Harrell called them. “I just kept pushing higher education aside as I tried to be the best mother I could be. But for years I told my girls to believe in themselves and work for their dreams. And then they threw it right back in my face.”

After her daughters finished college, they told their mom it was finally time to fulfill her dream and return to school.

After experiencing severe health scares while her daughters attended Old Dominion University, where she is now set to graduate this spring, Harrell had gained a new outlook on life.

“I was lucky to be alive two different times,” she said. “But it also gave me a different perspective. You’re only here for so long, so you must make it count.”

Harrell contracted Legionnaire’s Disease at a work conference in 2019, which led to pneumonia, organ complications and multiple hospital stays. The disease created long-term respiratory issues and forced her to work remotely to avoid pollutants and allergens that could affect her breathing.

After battling the disease, Harrell had an issue with a blood vessel in her brain that doctors said was dangerously close to being fatal.

Because of her health restrictions, online learning was a necessity. Harrell thought ODUGlobal would be her best bet based on the diverse online degree options and her family’s familiarity with ODU. She immediately found validation in her choice when she connected with ODUGlobal’s Elaine Hardin, the director of intake and student success.

Hardin, then a student success coordinator, went to bat to help Harrell receive the maximum transfer credits possible from her previous college courses. Those additional credits helped push her farther down the road to graduation.

“It meant so much that Elaine cared about someone she didn’t really know,” Harrell said.

Now, Harrell is poised to graduate in May with an online bachelor’s degree in leadership. This is an interdisciplinary program that teaches ethical leadership, legal issues, communication skill and critical thinking and decision-making skills. Staff at ODUGlobal, she said, have continually checked in to make sure everything is going smoothly.

“ODUGlobal truly wants students to succeed,” Harrell said. “You feel like a Monarch from the first time you speak with someone at the University and you understand they will do everything they can to empower you as you finish your degree. This is the village we have at ODUGlobal."

This past November, Harrell received more tough health news when doctors told her she was suffering from heart failure. Despite her diagnosis, Harrell was undeterred.

“I’m so proud of my mom,” said Jordyn Harrell, one of Celeste’s daughters. “She’s a perfect example of someone who keeps after something once she sets her mind to it. She’s worked so hard to get where she is, and she’s overcome so much.” 

Three women wearing ODU sweatshirts.

Celeste Harrell (middle) with her daughters Jordyn (left) and Jasmyn (right). Photo courtesy of Celeste Harrell.

Jordyn Harrell graduated from ODU in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.

Celeste Harrell’s other daughter, Jasmyn, who received an ODU bachelor’s degree in communication in 2021, added, “She’s a true example of what it means when, regardless of your circumstances, you look for the positive. You buckle down and still make it work and it’s never too late to go for your goals.”

Harrell is undergoing medical treatment but believes her coursework has given her a way to cope with her health challenges. As she stays focused on receiving her diploma in person in May, she remains optimistic and motivated, embodying her belief to never give up.

“I didn’t give up on life when I had issues in the past,” Harrell said. “I’m not giving up now. And I’m certainly not giving up on my education now that I’m here. I’m going to finish what I started.”