Strength from adversity

For the last two years, Liz Sweet has been making the 90-minute round-trip commute to campus. Just this spring semester, the senior health promotion major had to make the trek from Charles City, where she lives, to Cedar Falls four days a week.

“It’s not terrible,” Sweet said about the drive. “But it just gets boring.”

Liz Sweet

“I did not want to do anything. I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t even want to go outside,” she recalled. “But I knew it was something I had to do."

The literal distance she has had to travel to further her education pales in comparison to how far Sweet has come from where she was when she first started classes in Fall 2016.

Three weeks before her first semester at UNI after earning an associate’s degree from North Iowa Area Community College, Sweet was planning a wedding that would never happen.

Her fiance, Trent Smith, had proposed two years prior, on Valentine’s Day 2014, when she was pregnant with their son, Kai, who will be four years old in September. As she was preparing for classes at UNI, the couple had set the date, booked the venue and hired a caterer. Sweet had even gone dress shopping and ordered what she was to wear at their wedding.

Then, Smith was killed in a car accident, and Sweet was thrust into the role of a single mother about to pursue a bachelor’s degree while grieving the loss of her fiance.

“I did not want to do anything. I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t even want to go outside,” she recalled. “But I knew it was something I had to do. I was now the sole provider for our son, so I didn’t really have a choice. And I’m really, really glad that I decided to go.”

Sweet leaned heavily on her support system in Charles City, where both her family and Smith’s family live. “I’ve had the most amazing support,” she said. “Yes, I’ve been through a lot, but I’ve also been given so much love and support from my community.”

Her mom even quit her job to help take care of Kai while Sweet attended classes at UNI.

It was at UNI that Sweet found an unexpected advocate in the form of Tom Davis, professor of health promotion and education. The two first met for an advising session at transfer orientation, and she emailed Davis a week or two before the start of classes to inform him of her situation.

Without hesitation, as Sweet recalls, Davis asked, “What can I do to help?”

“That was crazy, to have someone you don’t even know completely go out of their way to make sure that you’re able to do what you need to do,” Sweet said. “He’s been with me the whole way. And I think he’s always believed in me even more than I’ve believed in myself.”

She considers Davis a mentor, and the two hope to keep in touch even after she graduates.

This summer, Sweet will intern at PDCM Insurance before graduating with a cumulative 4.0 GPA. She hopes to attend a school in the fall where she can pursue a master’s degree.

While it would be easy to make assumptions based on her success as a student in the years since she lost her fiance, Sweet doesn’t shy away from admitting that she still struggles with depression and anxiety. She was fortunate enough to find the support and counseling she needed to learn to live with it and continue moving forward.

“Grief is a tricky thing to understand, because it’s not something that you go through. It’s something that you carry with you the rest of your life. It gets smaller and smaller, and easier to manage, but it’s something that you always have.”