Don’t mistake the purple streaks in Heather Canterbury’s hair as merely an edgy fashion statement.
After her battle with the earliest stage of colorectal cancer in the form of malignant polyps, the 30-year-old’s body doesn’t produce pigment to color sections of her brunette curls, leaving the sides a silvery grey before she pops in a colorful hue.
But when Canterbury received the diagnosis in 2014, her hair color turned out to be the least of what she was to lose.
“In the last three years, I lost my health and my education,” said Canterbury, who returned to school at ITT Technical Institute after overcoming the illness, only to have the institution shut down before she could complete her degree. “Polk State picked me up when everyone else in education had let me down.”
Canterbury will graduate on Dec. 14 from Polk State College with her Associate in Arts degree and an intention to continue her nursing education.
During Canterbury’s fight for her health, she underwent surgery to remove her large bowel, gallbladder, and appendix. She also lost part of her small intestine and spent 41 days at Florida Hospital Celebration Health.
“I lost 56 percent of my digestive track, suffered a nasty infection, and developed allergies to 18 different foods,” Canterbury said. “It took me 16 weeks to feel human again. When I could eat food again and my hair stopped falling out from malnutrition, I felt more like myself.”
“In the last three years, I lost my health and my education. Polk State picked me up when everyone else in education had let me down.”
She remembers when “it didn’t hurt anymore” – the beginning of 2016.
But that year she would be challenged again when her education and career plans were turned upside down. She returned to ITT Technical Institute to complete her nursing degree – having started her education there in 2011 – only to be stripped of semesters’ worth of college credits due to the school’s closure over legal battles with the federal government.
The U.S. Department of Education placed certain mandates on ITT Educational Services, which operated for-profit technical schools across the country, in response to millions of dollars in financial aid funds that were unaccounted for. Additionally, there were concerns regarding whether the schools were living up to the requirements of accreditation. The combination of issues ultimately led to the institution’s collapse last year.
Canterbury was two semesters away from earning a degree, but transferring credits into a comparable program at another school made ITT students ineligible for federal student loan forgiveness under what is known as a closed-school discharge. For a student to qualify for debt relief under a closed-school discharge, he or she must start all over again. For ITT students whose education was disrupted by the school’s closure, starting over was widely viewed as the best option due to uncertainty over whether other institutions would accept transfer credits from ITT.
“I was on the dean’s list. I had completed some of my clinical rotations. I had worked incredibly hard, only to have everything I had accomplished ripped away from me,” Canterbury said. “I had nearly completed the requirements to become a nurse, but I was denied the documentation to make it official.”
“I was discouraged, and I was bitter,” she added.
It took Canterbury nine months after ITT’s closure to build up the motivation to look into continuing her education.
“I felt defeated and scared,” she said.
She was encouraged when she learned that Polk State could accept most of her General Education credits. Paired with a newfound drive to earn her nursing degree from the quality of care she received from nurses while she was in the hospital, she enrolled in fall 2017 to complete the five remaining courses that would earn her an Associate in Arts degree and help her rebuild her pathway to meet her goals.
“Because so many things were taken away from me, I grip a little tighter now. I’m not going to let go of my goals, and I’m so grateful that Polk State is giving me the chance to achieve them.”
“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, but experiencing firsthand the care of nurses when I was in the hospital re-instilled in me the reason why; it gave me the extra push to follow through with my degree,” Canterbury said.
And when she couldn’t receive financial aid quickly enough, she shared her story with the Polk State College Foundation, which awarded her a scholarship to pay for her classes.
She will receive her degree Thursday at the College’s 117th commencement ceremony, which will be from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the RP Funding Center, 701 W. Lime St. in Lakeland.
Canterbury hopes to work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and become a nurse practitioner one day.
“Because so many things were taken away from me, I grip a little tighter now,” Canterbury said. “I’m not going to let go of my goals, and I’m so grateful that Polk State is giving me the chance to achieve them.”