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Pursuit of excellence

Local woman never gives up her college dream

(Photo by Mary Solberg)

The summer months are typically a time of excitement and anticipation for college-bound teens. But just days before Elizabeth Salvo was supposed to leave for Arizona State University, tragedy struck, when her single mom suffered a brain aneurism.

“In the beginning I kept thinking ‘she’ll get better and I’ll go next month.’ Or next semester. It was my coping mechanism," recalls Elizabeth, who was 18 years old at the time. "Then finally the doctor told me she was permanently brain damaged and I needed to pick out a nursing home."

So Elizabeth passed on ASU and the dreams of law school to follow, and stayed nearby with her ailing mother. She eventually completed an Associates degree at Triton College in River Forest and became a paralegal for McDonald's Corporation. But Elizabeth,now a working mother of two, still yearned for a more complete college education.    

“It was this nagging little voice, like Jiminy Cricket," Elizabeth says. "I was working with people who had law degrees, and I had an associate’s degree. There was only so far I could go."

Unsure whether to pursue her old dream of becoming a lawyer, Salvo began to investigate bachelor degree programs.  About the same time, she met a McDonald’s colleague, Gordana Vujanovich, with a similar goal. 

“I mentioned that that I was interested in going back to school, and she said, ‘so am I,’” recalls Elizabeth.

Both decided to enter the accelerated adult program at Lewis University in Romeoville. In addition to the ongoing encouragement from the families, both woman felt the benefit of having a school buddy. 

“We worked at the same company and were going through the same things, so it was great to have a friend who understood,” says Gordana, also a mother of two.

She recalls that camaraderie coming into play the first day of a finance class, when the pressure almost drove Gordana to tears.

“Numbers and I don’t get along and I said to Elizabeth, ‘I don’t think I can get through this.’ Gordana recalls. "She squeezed my arm and said ‘you will get through it, and you need to stop this right now.’ I ended up getting an 'A'."

The friends earned their degrees in organizational leadership, and Elizabeth now boasts a full time management position in the Nutrition Department for McDonald’s. Gordana is a senior paralegal. 

They’re teaming up again in the Elmhurst College MBA program. But despite the benefit of having a study buddy, continuing school later in life has its challenges.

 “I think this would have been easier when my kids were younger and they went to bed earlier and didn’t do as many sports, " Elizabeth says.  "I try not to miss a game, but I have to when they fall on school night.”

Elizabeth also sees the direct benefit she takes to work with her each day. 

“I can learn something in class and apply it at work the next day," she says. "That makes a big difference, and makes me wonder if I’d been as successful if I’d gone to college in the traditional way.” 

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