Kay Mitchell-Spires has lived two lives.
In the first, she was a business owner, a world traveler and always on the go—living on her own terms, mother to eight children, happy.
In the second, she is confined to a wheelchair, in significant pain, unable to care for herself, struggling to read and write and do other tasks that she used to do without thinking.
They are bisected by a day in 2006 when Mitchell-Spires was in an accident that broke most of the bones on the right side of her body, including her neck, and left her with a stage III traumatic brain injury. She almost died. That day was followed by two grueling years of surgery and recovery, memory loss, doctor’s appointments, speech, physical, vocational and cognitive therapy and longing for the life she used to live. She didn’t recognize her children’s faces at first. Everything she’d had to live for was gone.
Kay Mitchell-Spires, however, had no intention of dying, or even just going through the motions of life. As difficult, painful and foreign as her situation was, she kept going, starting with earning a college degree—a goal she’ll accomplish when she crosses the stage at Northern Arizona University’s December 2018 commencement.
“I remember being driven by an elder daughter to the Pima Community College campus and rolling into the registrar’s office in my wheelchair, seeking to know the steps I needed to take to become a full-time student,” Mitchell-Spires said. “I expected stares and judgment but found only encouragement and acceptance.”
Unable to read and write, she had help from a tutor and an aide as she worked through her class. She had audio textbooks and used broken-speech voice commands to type out her homework and papers. Every day for that first year, she cried and thought about quitting.
“I felt as if everyone was speaking to me in a foreign language that everyone understood but me,” she said.
She didn’t quit, and as her brain got used to the work, she found other tasks were easier. By her second year at PCC, she was walking and relearning to read. Two years after enrolling at Pima, Mitchell-Spires was accepted at NAU, starting her bachelor’s degree in public administration. She attended classes at the Tucson campus in addition to taking online courses through the College of Education.
None of it was easy, she said. For the last nine years, she struggled with reading comprehension. She constantly feared she didn’t understand what an assignment was asking for. The best part was seeing grades posted at the end of a semester and knowing she was one class closer to earning her degree.
John Strader, a faculty member with NAU Online, said he taught Mitchell-Spires twice in her collegiate career, both at the community college level and as she worked toward her bachelor’s degree at NAU.
“Kay has overcome substantial setbacks and challenges in her life, and through all of those she has remained dedicated to learning and dedicated to her academic goals,” he said. “She has proven to be an exemplary student in the process, demonstrating her depth of analysis through her discussions with her fellow students and her academic work product. It is a real pleasure to see someone not give up on herself or her goals, and to achieve so much success in the process.”
With that degree almost in hand, Mitchell-Spires said a host of new career options are available to her; she’s looking for jobs in the Department of Veterans Affairs and with nonprofits that seek to better the lives of children in the foster care system. She and her wife have adopted and fostered several children, so these causes have extra meaning for her.
She’s even found ways to give back to the community. For the last three years, Mitchell-Spires has spent four days a month teaching other foster or adoptive parents how to style and manage hair of African-American or multicultural children; it doesn’t seem like a big deal, she said, but knowing how to care for a child you’ve taken in who’s a different race promotes bonding and makes children more confident and self-assured.
Mitchell-Spires said it feels surreal to think about walking across the stage to accept what she calls her “small moment of glory.”
“Attending NAU was a visual reminder to myself and others that, despite my different abilities, the impossible could become possible as long as my courage and perseverance never wavered,” she said. “It’s hard to explain, but NAU, its faculty and students, gave me the skills and confidence to collect, gather and examine the broken pieces of my life and make the most beautiful mosaic of my life that I have now.”
Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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