Homeless and disabled, she was ‘taking up space.’ Now she’s a college graduate.

'Don't waste your life:' She overcame homelessness, blindness to get college degree

BCTC student Deanna Chesser has overcome homelessness, the loss of a son and legal blindness to get her college degree, so she thinks you can too.
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BCTC student Deanna Chesser has overcome homelessness, the loss of a son and legal blindness to get her college degree, so she thinks you can too.

On May 7, Leandro Braga and Deanna Chesser will graduate from Bluegrass Community and Technical College with associate degrees, big awards and scholarships to help them get four-year degrees at the University of Kentucky.

At ages 32 and 47, respectively, both nontraditional college students say if they can get it done, anyone can.

“I want to tell so many young people that if they would realize the advantages a college degree gives them, they would do the work,” Chesser said. “If a woman my age who is legally blind can succeed at this, there is no way they can’t do it.”

A few years ago, Chesser discovered that she had rapid macular degeneration and is losing her sight. That was just another stumbling block for this Indiana native who left college as a young bride, was homeless for a time, lost a child to leukemia and much of her pulmonary function to a chemical spill at a factory where she worked. On disability for years, Chesser said, she felt worthless.

“I felt like I was taking up space,” she said. To do non-physical work, she needed a college degree.

When two of her step-grandchildren went to college, one of them urged her to start, too. She began with remedial English and math, then she moved into the psychology classes she wanted to major in. Along the way, she joined the community college honor society, Phi Theta Kappa, and won a New Century Scholar award that will pay $2,000 toward her four-year degree in psychology.

Despite her worsening eyesight, she plans on getting her doctorate and becoming a psychologist, working in grief counseling. She is grateful to the faculty and staff at BCTC, who helped her, and she acknowledged it hasn’t been easy to get back to school after so many years.

But, “it’s taken me 47 years to find my place in this world, and I’m not going to stop now.”

Braga, 32, also took a circuitous route to higher education. He was born in Brazil, raised near Washington, D.C., and spurned college for a more itinerant existence as an environmental activist in California. Sometimes he was homeless and sometimes he found work in construction. In the 2000s, he traveled to Venezuela, where he worked to help workers in that country’s mining industry. Much of it, he said, was extremely destructive to the environment, including pit mining for coal.

When a friend mentioned Lexington, he saw the similarities between Venezuela and Eastern Kentucky and was intrigued. He moved to Lexington in 2006, and he continued with drop-in construction jobs.

“When I wasn’t looking for a place to sleep, I’d look for construction work,” Braga said. “At some point I just said I’ve got to do something else in my life. I looked down into my bag of tricks and there’s not much there.”

He started a welding certificate program at BCTC, paying with Pell grants. Then fortunately, or unfortunately, he discovered the environmental science program, which tied directly into all the sustainability work he’d been interested in throughout his 20s.

He also was invited to join the honor society, which connected him with more scholarships to continue his degree. He became society president, and he now tries to connect other students with many well-known and not well-known opportunities for scholarships.

Last year, he won the 2016 NASA College Aerospace Scholar award, and a 2017 Coca-Cola Community College Academic Team Bronze Scholar award.

Braga will graduate with associate degrees in welding technology environmental science and science. He’s headed to UK to earn a four-year degree in environmental science, but he wants to stay connected with BCTC. He’d also like to start working on fundraising for more scholarships to get KCTCS students their four-year degrees in environmental science and sustainability.

“This school has given me so much,” Braga said as he prepared cultures in a microbiology lab, where he works part-time. “There is so much value to be found here, more people deserve to know about it.”

BCTC President August Julian said Chesser and Braga are role models for what community college can do for people, particularly at a time when Kentucky is trying to improve its college attainment levels, which are below the national average.

“These two students really are wonderful examples of the types of students who have benefited from a community college,” Julian said. “Both of them came to eduction later in life, and they have just blossomed as students who now have a commitment and a goal. … We exist to support students who need the kind of help and support we can give them.

“In both cases, we are so proud of them and what they’ve done with help of our faculty and staff.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

Area graduation ceremonies

University of Kentucky: Friday at Rupp Arena. Ceremonies at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m. Sunday, May 7: Ceremonies at 10 a.m., 2 p.m.

Bluegrass Community and Technical College: May 7 at Frankfort Convention Center. Ceremony at 4 p.m.

Eastern Kentucky University: May 12 at Alumni Coliseum. Ceremonies at 9 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 13 at Alumni Coliseum. College ceremonies at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Kentucky State University: May 13 at Frankfort Convention Center. Ceremony at 9 a.m.

Morehead State University: May 13, at the Academic-Athletic Center. Ceremonies at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Murray State University: May 13, at the CFSB Center. Ceremony at 9 a.m.

Northern Kentucky University: Sunday at BB&T Arena. Ceremonies at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.

University of Louisville: May 13 at KFC Yum Center. Ceremonies at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Western Kentucky University: May 13 at E.A. Didddle Arena. Ceremonies at 9:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Asbury University: Saturday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Berea College: Sunday at Seabury Center at 2 p.m.

Centre College: May 21 at Norton Center for the Arts at 3 p.m.

Georgetown College: May 13 on Giddings Lawn (Rain location: Davis-Reid Alumni Gym) at 10 a.m.

Midway University: May 13 at Graves Amphitheater on Midway campus at 11 a.m.

Transylvania University: May 27 on Old Morrison Lawn (rain location: Beck Center) at 9 a.m.