50-year-old Yolanda O’Connor is working on her MSW to strengthen her ability to do what she was born to do: advocate for others.
Yolanda O’Connor came down from the Chicago projects in 1989 to start her freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. With $5 in her pocket and her clothes in a garbage bag, she got to her dorm room as early as possible so she could unload her clothes without her roommate seeing the garbage bag.
Early in the semester, she was date raped. “It was traumatic,” she says. “My grades really suffered. I had to take a leave of absence. It really changed the trajectory of what I thought my life would be.”
O’Connor returned to her parents’ home, but in three weeks she surprised them by saying she had to go back. So, she returned to campus, but the going wasn’t easy. It took her eight years to get her degree in speech communications.
“Life is a journey,” she says. “We’re all on a journey. Your journey is who you are. You should never stop, never give up.”
Following her own advice, Yolanda O’Connor, at 50 years of age, enrolled this summer as an MSW student in the School of Social Work.
O’Connor has worked for Champaign Unit 4 School District for a long time, serving in a variety of roles: lunchroom supervisor, hall monitor, and, currently, as a career and academic support liaison. But a much better title for her in all of those roles is advocate.
“I have a caseload of 50 high school females, doing career and academic support for them,” says O’Connor, who continues her full-time duties with the school district as she works toward her MSW. “I’m an advocate for them and their families. I work to get the girls tutors, and to help them find jobs and job training. I’m that link between teacher, student, and family.”
It turns out that date rape changed more than just O’Connor’s life trajectory. A few years ago, she was standing in line in a grocery store when a former high school student, a male, recognized her. He turned to another woman and said of O’Connor, “That woman saved my life. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t be here today.” Because of her own experience as a rape victim, O’Connor had picked up on cues pointing to the student being sexually abused. She talked with him about it while he was in high school, helped him see there was life beyond the abuse, and it made all the difference for him.
Speaking of the students she works with today, she says “I want so much for the students I impact, for their lives to be changed, not just for today, but for tomorrow. I want people not just to survive, but thrive.”
O’Connor is thriving in her role for the school district. But she kept coming up with ideas that district administrators said were great, but fell under the jurisdiction of the school social workers. Many suggested she pursue a career in social work. In her role with the district, she spoke to Dr. Kevin Tan’s class at the School of Social Work. Tan encouraged her to apply to the School.
The idea was a bit daunting to O’Connor. Return to school? At her age? But, as she says, life is a journey. And journeys inevitably come with their own pitfalls, problems, and challenges.
“My older daughter was a freshman last year at the U of I,” O’Connor says. “My younger daughter is a sophomore in high school. They said ‘Mom, you’re probably not going to apply, because you don’t believe you can do it. But we believe you can.’” Her husband was supportive as well, encouraging her to go back to school, even though they had to take out a loan to do so. “‘This is your journey,’ they told me. ‘This is important to you, and we support you in it.’”
So, she took a risk. She did apply to the School of Social Work.
“I’m 50 years old, and here I am!” she laughs.
And where she is is in a good spot. She is extremely close with her cohort. “We encourage and strengthen each other,” she says. She receives great support from her professors. “I wasn’t expecting the hands-on, ‘Hey, how are you doing this week’ from department heads,” she says. She finds herself in what she calls a family atmosphere. “It’s an incredible program with incredible people. No question is too silly to ask. I expected support, but what I’ve received is tenfold.”
Her sexual assault, which happened 31 years ago, still haunts her, as walking on campus brings back a flood of memories. But it didn’t stop her on her life journey. In fact, it rerouted her journey to take on the role of advocate.
“We all need an advocate,” O’Connor says. Strong in her faith, she says “I’m representing Christ. I’m not perfect—my students will tell you that!—but that’s the bigger picture for me. I’m 50 years old! What am I doing going back to school?” she laughs. “I’m the poster child for gratefulness. This is where I’m supposed to be. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”