Veteran overcomes loss, finds support as post-traditional student at Firelands

Monica Cox pursuing a Bachelor of Science in social work

By Patrick Pfanner

Monica Cox smiles when someone mentions her late husband and mother.

“My husband, Lee, was my life; my everything,” Cox said.

A favorite memory includes when they celebrated Thanksgiving with Cherokee Native Americans in North Carolina, with whom Lee shared heritage. The couple also enjoyed riding his Harley Davidson and relaxing on their patio.

Cox said her mother, Phyllis, was married to her father, Nicholas, for 52 years and made a wonderful couple.

“Memories galore,” Cox said of Lee, who died in January 2021, and Phyllis, who died in November 2021.

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BGSU Firelands student Monica Cox smiles during a recent visit to campus.

Lee and Phyllis cheered Cox on when she enrolled at BGSU Firelands to pursue a Bachelor of Science in social work.

Although they won’t be there to watch Cox take the stage during August commencement, she’s at peace knowing they wanted her to earn a degree.

“When I walk on the stage during graduation, it will be for both of them,” Cox said.

Service and experience

Cox, a 59-year-old Norwalk, Ohio, resident, served eight years in the United States Air Force but retired due to disability. She isn’t shy about her age and experience; she’s proud of her past and excited for the future.

“At my age, I’m no chickling,” Cox said. “But I plan to live for 101 years. I want to be one of those people on the news celebrated for being 100 years old. With that said, I still think of myself as young because I know I have many years left to work.”

Cox joined the Air National Guard after high school graduation and was stationed 179th Tactical Airlift Wing at the Mansfield Lahm Air National Guard Base. After that, she went Active Duty in the Air Force and she primarily served at Beale Air Force Base in California.

“I had top-secret clearance to help pilots and crew for reconnaissance flights,” Cox said. “I’ve always enjoyed planes, and I grew up with a lot of military connection in the family. The Air Force was a huge part of my life.”

Cox worked several different jobs after retiring from service, including at the car dealership in Norwalk where she met Lee in 2015.

Family and BGSU

After they became a couple, she sought a change in career, and Lee was supportive of her decision. Cox said he was prepared to support the couple financially while she earned a degree.

“He was just such a great person,” Cox said. “He was the love of my life.”

Cox learned more about her options as a disabled veteran, including a chance to pursue a college degree debt-free.

A Veterans Affairs representative who worked with Cox after she left her job suggested she apply for Chapter 31 Vocational Rehabilitation through the Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides assistance to veterans who have a disability and need vocational rehabilitation.

"During that process, I had to research three different careers," Cox said. "I reviewed the benefits and how much it would cost to get a degree for those jobs. I had to interview people who worked in those professions at the time."

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BGSU Firelands student Monica Cox sits in the study lounge in the Cedar Point Center on campus.

Cox applied for, and won, the VA approval to pursue a bachelor's degree. The approval came with paid tuition and a stipend on which to live.

"It is a blessing that I received military benefits to assist with this great opportunity," Cox said.

She chose BGSU Firelands for several reasons, including its proximity and reputation.

“I did my research, and BGSU Firelands is a very good college,” Cox said. “The college works to help students succeed. It looked great, especially because I could continue my life with my husband since college was just 20 minutes from home.”

Cox entered BGSU Firelands ready to succeed. Her inspiration to pursue a degree in social work stems from a desire to give back.

I’ve had so many people help me in the past, and now it’s my turn. With the gift of going to college at this point of my life, I believe my higher power pushed me to do this. It’s just meant to be.

Her enthusiasm and drive for success drew the attention of several faculty and staff members at BGSU Firelands.

“Monica came in with such a drive,” said Jennifer Buening, director of Academic and Career Advising at BGSU Firelands. “There is sometimes a learning curve for post-traditional students, but she stuck with it and succeeded. I always made a point to let her know we’re proud.”

The BGSU social work program prepares students for careers engaging with diverse populations in a variety of settings. One course covers the impact of death and dying — a topic that became very real for Cox.

“Everyone goes through struggles and trauma. I’ve gone through death in the last two years,” Cox said. “It’s hard, and I’ve pushed through.”

After Lee died, BGSU professor Joyce Litten asked if Cox wanted to continue with the difficult class subject matter amid personal loss.

Cox said her mother encouraged her to earn a degree, even when it seemed challenging.

“My mom wanted me to keep going,” Cox said. “She would say, ‘Monica, you can do this. You go, girl.’”

Days before her death, Phyllis briefly joined Cox on a remote version of that class after Litten’s granddaughter made an appearance on their webcam.

“Since my professor shared her granddaughter, I shared my mom with everyone,” Cox said. “She said, ‘Hi, everybody,’ and it was special. To have that kind of support from my professor was amazing.”

Hometown college

Cox discovered the supportive environment at BGSU Firelands extended beyond the bounds of personal tragedy. Whether it was a smile from a custodian or a conversation with an advisor, the welcoming environment endures.

“BGSU Firelands feels like a hometown college," Cox said. "You feel like you belong from the beginning to end. When you walk through the college and say ‘hello’ to someone, they remember you. That’s what makes me proud to be a Falcon.”

Cox said the faculty did a tremendous job supporting students. She said three professors in particular — associate professor Theodore Bach, assistant clinical professor Tasha Ford and associate professor Timothy Jurkovac — stand out from the crowd.

“They instilled a ‘wow’ in me with their classes,” Cox said. “It was interesting to feel that way about learning again in my 50s. What’s also interesting is that these people, all of whom have ‘Ph.D.’ with their name, treat us like equals. That opened my eyes even more.”

Cox said the Teaching and Learning Center, a college tutoring and support service, helped her during a particularly challenging class.

“When I had to do statistics, I realized that would be the hardest thing for me,” Cox said. “I was afraid I would fail, but the Teaching and Learning Center really helped me.”

Buening said students like Cox who use support services set themselves up for success.

“You never know how your interaction with a student can impact them,” Buening said. “Monica fully utilized advising, tutoring and faculty to get the most of her experience.”

It’s those one-on-one interactions — whether in the learning center, with an advisor or with a fellow student — that solidified her choice to enroll at BGSU Firelands.

“I feel like family here,” Cox said. “Trust me, speaking as a post-traditional student with gray hairs who didn’t feel like they would fit in, you are accepted.”

As for the future, Cox said she’s ready to spread her wings once again after August commencement.

"I am completing my last semester and internship with a local Hospice," Cox said. "My future includes taking the licensing test and earning my degree with pride. Once I am licensed, I will take a few moments and celebrate what I have accomplished by going on a vacation that is so deserved."

Cox is considering a move to a warmer climate such as Florida, North Carolina or South Carolina to work in Hospice.

"I feel my experiences will benefit someone, and my heart wants to help others," Cox said. "I also have a desire to become an ombudsman — someone who investigates complaints against public bodies — to ensure our elderly are treated with the respect they deserve. I want to be part of the solution to lower elder abuse that occurs in long-term facilities."

Updated: 05/11/2022 11:36AM