U.S. Army Veteran Overcomes Health Challenges and Personal Struggles to Graduate with Honors at Claflin
Jun 07, 2019
After six years on the job and being notified that her request for a promotion was denied, Retis Patricia Moss listened intently to every word the Claflin University recruiter said that day in 2014 when he came to her job at the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) in Columbia, S.C.
He made a presentation about a partnership Claflin had established with DJJ that offered discounted on-site classes for employees, and promised they could earn a degree in 18 months. Students could major in several areas, including criminal justice or get a master's degree in business administration. The program was specifically designed for busy, working adults who needed flexible class schedules to help them balance family and job responsibilities.
Moss was one of two DJJ employees at the Columbia site who enrolled in the program. "The timing was unbelievable," she said. "I always wanted to attend college, but I didn't. When I was turned down for a promotion because I didn't have a degree, I decided to enroll at Claflin."
Five years later, Moss, who is 57 years old, received her bachelor's degree in business administration with a minor in computer science at Claflin's historic sesquicentennial commencement on Saturday, May 11. Moss graduated cum laude with a 3.62 grade point average despite numerous challenges along the way. She overcame physical abuse, a debilitating illness, and a string of personal tragedies, to achieve her dream of graduating from college. "I always wanted my degree and now I have it," she said. "I worked for it and now it's mine."
After high school she enlisted in the military, got married and had a child. However, it became an abusive relationship so she left her husband after 10 years. With literally just the t-shirt she was wearing, Moss headed back home to Bethlehem, Pa. She joined the Army Reserves, found a new job, and raised her daughter. She was at peace and comfortable with her situation until the job she had worked for 17 years with the City of Bethlehem ended. Although she was working part-time with the Army Reserves, Moss decided to leave Pennsylvania when her sister jokingly suggested she come South for a "new job and a new husband."
Moss remembered taking a few college classes when she first entered the military, but stopped at her former husband's insistence. She once inquired about using the GI Bill to go to school, but realized those benefits had to be used within 20 years. It was too late for her. After that, she put college in the back of her mind. She thought she would never get the opportunity to attend college.
That was, until Claflin came calling and Moss was admitted through the Center for Continuing Education. She registered for mostly online classes. However, shortly after Claflin stopped offering classes at DJJ, Moss retired and began taking classes as a full-time student.
Moss had again found stability and was focused on her classwork. She was confident that her career opportunities would be expanded after she earned a college degree, but Moss began to recognize that she was losing weight and feeling physically tired. After a series of tests and doctor appointments, she was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which damaged skeletal muscle breaks down rapidly. Moss was hospitalized and after being released, she moved back to Pennsylvania to live with her adult daughter and grandson. She continued to take classes online but her grades suffered due to reoccurring symptoms of her illness.
"Math was my biggest problem," Moss said. "I needed the direct interaction with my instructors that online classes did not provide. It was very difficult."
Moss persevered and once her health improved, she was determined to complete her requirements for a degree, although she was no longer motivated by the possibility of a job promotion.
"I just didn't want to stop," Moss said. "I knew that if I quit school this time, I would never return, and I wanted my degree."
So, she packed up her walker, still weak from her illness, and moved back to South Carolina. This time, Moss moved to Orangeburg where she returned to Claflin as a full-time student. She attended classes on campus and her remarkable transformation resulted in her making the Dean's List and joining Toastmasters International, the non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. She was also selected to several honor societies including Alpha Kappa Mu, which recognizes academic excellence in all areas of study; National Society of Leadership and Success, the nation's largest leadership honor society which accepts students based on academic success and leadership potential; and Entrepreneurial Action, US , a community of student, academic, and business leaders. She embraced the collegial environment and attended numerous campus events and activities.
"She was very committed to doing what was necessary to earn her degree," said Mark Roberts, associate executive director of the Center for Professional & Continuing Studies at Claflin. "She endured illness, relocated several times, and transitioned from an online continuing education student to a full-time traditional student to complete her assignments. She went from using a walker, then progressed to a cane, and now she walks with no assistance at all. It really is amazing what she accomplished."
Now that she has her bachelor's degree, Moss plans to continue her education and get a master's degree. Her desire is to open a non-profit community closet that helps domestic violence victims, especially those released from incarceration after defending themselves from an abusive spouse or intimate partner.
"Often they are set free wearing the same clothes they wore when they were arrested, and without a supportive family, that's all many of them have. And for others, if the clothes were used for evidence, they are at the mercy of social workers or correctional officers to help them find something to wear."
She also wants to provide clothes for juvenile offenders who have a similar experience after they have been released from detention facilities. Much of her motivation for this work is her own personal experiences.
"I ran out of the house in the t-shirt I had on and knocked on the first door where there was a light," she said as she recalled escaping an abusive relationship. "That person let me in, called the police and gave me clothes to wear. I want to help others, just like someone helped me. I want to give back to my community and assist those in need."