Human Services Graduate, Mom of 7, Earns Degree and Job with the DCF
As a mom of seven, Laura Gaughan '21 usually knows when her family is up to something. But on a windy March evening, nearly a year into the pandemic, she had no idea that a surprise graduation party was underway.
After Gaughan completed her bachelor’s in human services and received notification that her diploma would soon arrive in her mailbox, her wife, Paula reached out to Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) to share the obstacles Gaughan overcame to get to this point. Together, Paula and SNHU coordinated a surprise, socially distanced celebration to honor the resilience and determination that went into achieving this major milestone.
“I was so proud of the kids and Paula for making this so special for me,” Gaughan said. “I can usually tell when something is going on, but this time I had no idea.”
From Significant Trauma to Dean's List
Earning a bachelor’s degree was a dream of Gaughan’s, but her journey began in the most unexpected way. A 2016 blow to her head, that knocked her unconscious, left her with a traumatic brain injury. She found herself unable to read, retain information or even sign her name.
“This bad concussion had me struggling for many months,” she said. “I went for speech, occupational and physical therapy for 10 months.”
She was sensitive to sound and could no longer play sports with her children. She grew fearful of former passions, such as motorcycles and rock climbing, and continuously had to be aware of her surroundings.
Gaughan no longer felt like herself, having lost interest in everything she used to enjoy. “I looked like my normal self on the outside, but the inside was in turmoil... I had to learn how to discover new hobbies,” she said. “I had to learn how to love my new self.”
As she recovered and navigated the changes in her life, she had to leave her job and decided it was time to pursue her dream of earning a college degree.
Retaining information from assigned readings was her biggest challenge, and because her first injury weakened her neck, she was more susceptible to future concussions. In total, Gaughan sustained five concussions while working toward her degree.
“Each time, it got harder and harder to retain (information),” she said, and she had to try different approaches to learning. Luckily, she said the course materials were easy to navigate, and her advisor helped her register for classes and answered all her questions. “I had the best advisor a girl could ask for,” Gaughan said. “She helped me every step of the way.”
And nothing felt more satisfying than earning an A on a difficult assignment. “When I wasn’t working on school papers, I was thinking about them, and it gave me a sense of relief when I would finish a big paper,” Gaughan said. “I loved that feeling, that sense of accomplishment.”
In three-and-a-half years, she not only finished her degree but landed a spot on the Dean’s List.
7 Kids and a Pandemic
With less than a year until Gaughan would complete her bachelor’s degree, the pandemic struck and challenged her in new ways. Beginning on March 11, 2020, all seven of her children – ranging in age from 3-17 years old – were home with her full-time.
“The pandemic took a toll on our whole family, just like many others in the world,” she said. “...We have one special needs child that needed to learn to adjust to being home and away from everything he knew. Our youngest son, who is three, was also home for almost 14 weeks when his daycare closed. That took some time for all of us to adjust to.”
Going to school online allowed her to rearrange her schedule to prioritize her family's needs, and, thankfully, her wife was there to share in their children’s needs during this time.
“We work well as a team, especially in (a) crisis,” Gaughan said. “Instead of having my ‘school time’ during the day, I had to adjust it to weekends and when our youngest was sleeping during naps and at night when Paula was home from work.”
Although balancing quite a bit, she still managed to double down to complete her program early, wrapping it up with a capstone on veteran homelessness, a topic that interested her.
A Degree to Help Others
Gaughan decided to pursue a human services degree because of her experience engaging with the foster care system and desire to help others. “But helping people that really need someone to care about them in a way no other has is really why I picked human services,” she said.
She and Paula fostered and adopted three of their children through the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and she witnessed the struggles their children's birthmother faced. “She needed more than I could give her at the time, but I wish she had someone that could have helped her in the way she needed,” Gaughan said. “I think she could have thrived if she only had the support she needed.”
Now fostering their fourth child, Gaughan has years of experience and knows well the ups and downs of foster care. “During my time as a foster parent, I have created a sort of support group and helped new families navigate the ins and outs of the process,” she said.
She’s done everything from coordinating get-togethers to volunteering to tend to newborns with neonatal abstinence syndrome in the middle of the night.
Knowing there are so many people and families in need kept her motivated to finish her degree and land the role of family resource liaison for a Massachusetts DCF office. She'll work directly with foster families like her own.
“Recently earning my bachelor’s in human services came at a great time and definitely gave me the advantage over other applicants,” Gaughan said. “I have learned so much in college that I can apply to my new job – not only the human services content but on-the-job skills such as time management.”
A Cause for Celebration
Surrounded by family and cupcakes, Gaughan celebrated her accomplishments. “The kids saw me at my worst, but now I am proud to say they can see me at my best,” she said, hoping they’ve also noticed how hard work pays off. Gaughan wants them to know that they can achieve their dreams no matter what obstacles they face.
“There were definitely struggles with that first concussion, and I mourned the loss of myself for a really long time. But, since attending SNHU and finding the courage to come out of my comfort zone, my brain is stronger than it has ever been,” Gaughan said. “I now believe if it weren’t for that horrific day, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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