When Rose Ann Whiteside, who describes herself as “73-years-young,” receives her diploma during Waubonsee Community College commencement ceremonies this weekend, it will mark the beginning of a new chapter and career for a great-grandmother whose long list of previous roles include beautician, auto mechanic, riveter for Boeing, waitress, caretaker, book keeper and more.
In spite of the many titles and jobs Whiteside, of Oswego, has held in the past, she said that it wasn’t until she came to Waubonsee that she found her path in life.
“I have led an interesting, interesting life,” she said. “My whole life I have been finding where I fit in, and here at Waubonsee, I have found it.”
But it was a challenging situation that led Whiteside to Waubonsee in the first place. Her Social Security checks weren’t covering her bills, but she didn’t feel like she had a skill set that employers would find valuable.
“I arrived at Waubonsee in 2014 with a broken spirit and no confidence,” she said. “I doubted myself and I was scared to death to go back into the working world.”
Wanting to brush up on her skills in order to get a good job, she enrolled in a computer class.
“And I quickly found that was not my forte,” she said of the class.
In spite of struggling in that class, Whiteside said she had experienced a sense of community and support at Waubonsee, and she felt encouraged to try something different. Whiteside met with a counselor who took the time to get to know her and listen. The woman read through a list of all the jobs Whiteside had ever had.
“She looked through them and said she thought I’d do well with a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor Certificate, working with those who are struggling with addiction,” Whiteside said, explaining it was an option she’d never heard of, much less considered. “I still kind of laugh about that myself, but I told her that I’d try it and if I liked the first two classes, I’d continue.”
Three years later, Whiteside is set to walk across the stage at commencement, and plans to continue at Aurora University to get her bachelor’s degree.
The list of challenges that Whiteside experienced in the past few years would have stopped many from pursuing their academic goals, but for her they were simply the latest in a lifelong streak of adversity and perseverance.
After enrolling at Waubonsee in 2014, Whiteside struggled to afford her education, and was grateful to receive three scholarships. She had a stroke, and also battled breast cancer which required radiation, chemotherapy and surgery.
And even while juggling course work and health issues, she immersed herself in the community around her at Waubonsee, doing an internship, joining honors societies, volunteering and even studying abroad in Costa Rica.
“I enjoyed helping people and being part of the social aspect of things,” she said. “All of the kids are my grandkids’ ages, but all I can say is I really enjoyed my journey.”
For Whiteside, this weekend’s commencement also helps her prove wrong naysayers who slowed her down from pursuing her dreams years ago.
“I graduated from high school and a counselor told me the only thing I would be good for is getting married and having kids because I didn’t have the brains for college,” she said. “That broke my heart because I had always figured college was the path.”
Whiteside did not go to college. She got married, and was happy to raise three children. The marriage did not last, however, and - while living in Washington - she divorced.
“I worked the third shift so that my kids would never be alone,” she said of a waitressing job she took to pay the bills. She also bought a car for $150 and started teaching herself how to work on it, a skill that came in handy years later.
The stress of working all night and raising children during the day added up, as one day Whiteside fell asleep while standing and nursing her baby, sliding down a wall she had been leaning on as her shocked friends stood and watched. Shortly after, she hired a babysitter and switched to a day shift.
It was the first of many career changes for Whiteside. Over the years, she worked as a secretary, a cosmetologist, a wedding dress maker, as a riveter for Boeing, as a babysitter, a dog walker, a house sitter, for All State Insurance, as a book keeper and even as an auto shop manager for Kmart, where she also performed maintenance on vehicles during a time when women were rare in those roles. More recently, she even volunteered as a spiritual advisor for a church.
While still living in Washington, she also worked at a community college, where she earned her associate of arts and associate of science in 1976. She said she never felt that the faculty and staff were supportive there – as they have been at Waubonsee – and she was informed a few days before graduation that she was one course short of being able to walk in her ceremony. She took her children anyway, and watched her fellow classmates walk across the stage.
“I really have done anything I can to get by,” she said. “I see myself as a thriver, not just a survivor.”
Today, Whiteside also proudly has the title of grandmother to six and great-grandmother to two.
She said when she walks across the stage this weekend, she’ll be completing a dream she was denied many years ago.
“I intend to walk in this ceremony since I didn’t get to make it there the first time,” she said.
She plans to spend the summer preparing for her next step towards a career in social work, which she’ll pursue at Aurora University. She also hopes to travel meet her newest great-grandchild.
Wherever she goes next, Whiteside will be a living example of the phrase she commonly uses when ending a conversation or communication – “Expect miracles.”