Melissa Sanders

Denmark Technical College

"When we keep stepping out into new comfort zones, we're building ourselves up rather than holding ourselves back."

My name is Melissa Sanders. I grew up in the small town of Barnwell, South Carolina. College was just not a conversation in my household. No one in my family went to college. I wanted to, but had some fears about taking that first step.

I got married soon after high school, and started a family. Caring for my daughter became my responsibility, and I just didn’t foresee a future where I would go to college – no matter how much I wanted to further my education. I tried all different types of things, but didn’t have a passion for any of it. 

My grandmother came to live with us when I was pretty young. She suffered from heart disease, and I saw my mom care for her 24/7. She was in our household and she went through different surgeries constantly. My mother inherited that, and it has been a battle for her. In 2014, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I also grew up with a sister who suffered from many, many different disorders and chemical imbalances, and at the time there was no real medical solution. 

When my dad got cancer it was my wake-up call that it was time to do something more than being a mom. I wanted something more for myself because my girls were growing up. I basically just took a leap of faith and said, “Okay, I’m going to apply to Denmark Tech. It’s local and the schedule works for me.” 

I applied last fall. I had been out of school for 20 years and had done absolutely nothing school-related in that time. I really had to put my effort into the assignments and study hard to keep the grades up. I applied to the nursing program and was accepted in August. There are times I have wanted to give up, but I have to keep looking at the finish line and end results. 


How did your fear factor into your journey? And how did it evolve over time? 

It was a mix of education insecurities and physical insecurities. I have struggled with self-esteem and often don’t feel like I fit in. I worried that I wouldn’t fit in at college and wouldn’t be able to do what I needed to do. Over time, I realized that some of the things that challenge you won’t change, so you have to just do them. You have to move forward and not let that hinder you from greater things. Yes, you may have some insecurities. Yes, you may not be the best in the class, but you can do it.

I tried to turn to the motivational nurses or students in the program. There was one in particular, who shared a YouTube video. it  said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re an A student, a B student, or a C student — that doesn’t determine what kind of nurse you’re going to be.” When I don’t do as well as I would like, I try to remember that even though it may not be the best grade, I still put my best effort into it. That motivates me to keep moving forward. 


How does your family motivate you? 

I have an eight-year-old and an 18-year-old. My 18-year-old is one of my biggest motivators, because she went through the vocational school nursing program her school offers. She had her CNA before she graduated, and her and I both are doing our first year of nursing at a technical college. She pushes me forward and I push her forward. 

My eight-year-old is so sweet. If I try to take a break, she’ll say, “Mommy, you can’t have a break. You’ve got to keep studying.” She gives me encouragement every time she sees me working and she knows exactly what I’m doing. It’s motivating her also because she has struggled in school. I’ve seen a big change in her as she has watched me. She’s like, “Mama, I’m studying like you,” or “I want to be a nurse like you’re doing.” It’s helping her to see me doing what it takes to get there.

I know that both of my parents are very proud that I even took the first step, and they have been big motivators the whole way. They’re very, very excited and can’t wait to see me on the other side. Even though it took me a little longer and my story is a bit different from everyone else, they push me forward and keep me encouraged. They’re awesome. 


What misperceptions do you think people have about technical college? What would you like to tell them? 

I didn’t know what the four-year college experience was like. I never would have chosen that because it would have overwhelmed me. For someone wanting to pursue further education but struggling with insecurities about their capabilities, I think a technical college is a perfect fit because it’s a much smaller base school.

You get to know all the faculty and staff. The classes are not as big. Especially with the nursing program, you really become like family. It was important to me to feel like I wasn’t in this big place where  no one knew me. 


What did you learn about yourself along the way? 

Stepping out of comfort zones is important — even just doing this interview is an example. This is definitely out of my comfort zone because I like seeing things happen and making things happen, but I like being behind the scenes. My journey has taught me to quit being afraid of everything. Fear is that thing in the back of our mind that keeps us from reaching our goals in so many areas of life. When we keep stepping out into new comfort zones, we’re building ourselves up rather than holding ourselves back. 


What does ‘I Defy’ mean to you?

No matter what obstacle or insecurities I have faced in my life, I press forward. Only you can define what you’re going to be and what your ultimate goal in life will be. You will have to press through some growing pains, but just like a diamond, good things come from adapting to pressure. You have to go through that cycle of being under some pressure before you get to your ultimate goal.


What advice do you have for others on their journey? 

You have absolutely nothing to lose. That first step is a step of faith, but you don’t know what you can do until you try. You’ll be surprised at the abilities and knowledge you didn’t even know you had within you. It doesn’t have to be a big name. It doesn’t have to be a very well-known school. Wherever you take that step, even at a small school, it’s going to make a big difference in your life.