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Veteran Battling Parkinson’s Surprised with SNHU Diploma

SNHU graduate John Draper holding his diploma with his advisor Courtney Hannon

On a typical hot and hazy Florida evening in June, John Draper, 75, of Fort Meade, never expected what he was about to find inside the church where he worships every Sunday. A humble man, the U.S. Army veteran had no idea more than two dozen of his closest family and friends were gathered inside to celebrate his incredible accomplishment of completing his bachelor’s degree online with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) while persisting through debilitating health challenges.

“This is the culmination of a dream, a goal that’s been fulfilled after 42 years of trying,” Draper said. “I’ve done well to be able to finish, I believe. According to the fanfare here today, I think you all think I did well. I’m so surprised, so pleased and thankful.”

Draper is battling Parkinson’s disease and was unable to travel to Manchester, New Hampshire, for the commencement ceremony in April.

John Draper sitting with his diploma next to his advisor Cournety HannonThroughout his SNHU journey, Draper worked closely with his advisor, Courtney Hannon. Ahead of the virtual commencement ceremony in May, Draper shared a photo of himself in his cap and gown with Hannon with a message saying, “Parkinson’s disease causes sagging facial muscles, so the smile in my heart doesn’t show on my face … My family encouraged me, but you got me to the finish line. Though it will never be enough, thank you.”

Moved by Draper and his incredible spirit, Hannon was one of several representatives from SNHU on hand to surprise and celebrate him in Florida. As soon as he heard Hannon’s voice, Draper was overcome with emotion — realizing the woman who had been on the other end of the telephone for the past few years cheering him on had traveled across the country to hand-deliver his diploma.

John Draper holding up an SNHU shirt“You don’t know what this lady meant to me,” Draper told the room of supporters. “She kept me going! I don’t think anything else could have happened that surprised me more than this event. I was amazed that people in New Hampshire, which, to us Southerners, is almost a foreign country, would be able to come and put this together and honor me as a graduate.”

“For me being able to be here and surprise John was so exciting. It just means the world to be able to see him in person and to celebrate with him,” Hannon said. “He has persevered so much and worked so hard to earn this degree, and I am so proud of him, so to be able to be here, give him a hug and hand him that diploma was amazing.”

Due to his deteriorating health and transition to hospice care, Draper came close to being unable to complete his degree program. Since he was just a few assignments short, Hannon wanted to make sure Draper was recognized in some way and requested that an honorary degree be prepared for him. However, Draper was determined to finish what he started 42 years ago and persisted through difficult health challenges to complete the work on time and officially earn his Bachelor of Arts in General Studies.

John Draper with his diploma“John is a lot of what SNHU represents,” Hannon said. “He’s a first-generation graduate, a non-traditional learner, a veteran — he’s overcome a lot of obstacles to get where he is today. There have been pauses and times when he needed extensions for work, but he has persevered and never given up.”

“To tell you the truth, I would’ve given up a long time ago had Courtney not been the cheerleader for me and kept me on track and always positive,” Draper said. “She always told me I could do it no matter how difficult. She told me, ‘It’s not going to be easy at times, but you’ll make it. I have faith that you’ll be able to do it, and I can tell that you want to do it. You’ll end up getting it done.’ And I did with her help.”

Draper served in the Vietnam War and started his college journey in 1979, earning an associate degree in divinity. After attending community college for a few years in the early ‘90s, Draper left school for other responsibilities. Decades later, while watching television at home, something sparked inside of him.

John Draper hugging his advisor Courtney Hannon“One day I saw an advertisement on TV for SNHU, and I said, ‘I think I can do that because I’m retired now. I don’t have any responsibilities other than my wife and I,’ and so I started it,” Draper said. “Because of the help of my sister Pat who was my tutor, and my family’s support and all of you from SNHU, I made it.”

As he joins the SNHU Alumni community, Draper has advice and encouraging words for others who are aging or facing health issues and have dreams of graduating from college.

“Go for it,” Draper said. “I waited a little bit too late, I think. But I did it for selfish reasons because of my disease. It’s neurological, and I was trying to delay the effects of the disease on my brain. If you are considering going back to school, I would recommend you go for it and don’t give up. Never give up.”

Siobhan Lopez is a former journalist, who is now the assistant director of media relations at Southern New Hampshire University.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.