RALEIGH — Pomp and circumstance, parties and celebrations, crossing a stage to be handed a diploma — for many, these are the hallmarks of graduation season — a rite of passage marking the shift into a new phase of life. But not this year. Graduation during the COVID-19 pandemic means listening to speeches and degree-recipient names called out over a livestream or driving in a long line of honking cars past one’s school.
One degree recipient has had obstacles land in her way for a lot longer than most. For Liz Skvarla, her journey through academia to obtain her goals has quite literally taken the better part of a lifetime — with repeated attempts to get her nursing degree and an elusive master’s degree. But you’d probably never hear about these trials and tribulations from her as her friends have characterized her as modest to a fault.
Recognizing her long list of struggles and perseverance, her husband, John, has stepped up to help tell the story. You might recognize the Skvarla name. John Skvarla served as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and then the Department of Commerce under former Gov. Pat McCrory before joining the Raleigh law firm of Nexsen Pruett.
At the onset of 2020, Liz Skvarla was given the surprise of a lifetime with an honorary doctorate from Pfeiffer University; but to do this educational saga justice, the story really needs to start at the beginning.
The tale of the elusive degree goes back to 1966, when John Skvarla met a young woman on a blind date during their sophomore year in college. She was attending Mount Saint Vincent’s, a Catholic college near Yonkers in New York. That girl was Liz Eney.
When John met her, Liz was pursuing a nursing degree through a co-op Mount Saint Vincent’s had with Columbia University. In fact, the main reason she had chosen Mount Saint Vincent was due to the co-op program. But it was not meant to be. As fate would have it, mid-way through her sophomore year the co-op with Columbia closed down. Liz stayed at Mount Saint Vincent’s and ended up finishing with a degree in psychology.
A year after leaving college, John and Liz got engaged. John headed to law school in Chapel Hill, while Liz stayed in New York. The couple married in 1971, and when John graduated law school in 1973, they officially set down roots in Raleigh, North Carolina.
John remarked that during those early years in Raleigh, Liz “took classes everywhere” from Meredith College to North Carolina State. He also said that before they were married, and even after, she was active at and had interned with mental health facilities.
“Psychiatric care was and still is her passion,” said John.
Two kids later, Liz told John that she always wanted to get her nursing degree, and he told her that was a great idea. The kids were old enough to juggle her taking courses, and they could find a way for that to happen.
Liz headed to Duke University’s nursing program. As luck would have it, admissions staff told her that due to her past course work, she would only need to make up a single class in order to proceed. The course was sequential, meaning it had first and second semester portions. Liz enrolled and loved the first semester offering, however, once again the proverbial rug would be pulled out from under her. Following that semester’s courses, Duke shut down its nursing program.
“She’s two for two,” said John. “Columbia closes its school and now Duke closes its nursing school.”
“Not to be denied, she goes over to Chapel Hill,” John said, adding that Chapel Hill said her credits were great and they thought Liz would be a good fit, but their prerequisites were different and numerous.
Chapel Hill told Liz that because she had a background in psychology, she would need to enroll in classes like chemistry, biochemistry and calculus. In a nutshell, Chapel Hill required her to take the hard sciences used to weed students out for medical school as prerequisites for the nursing program.
“The good news is she only had to do two years, because she had a four-year degree already,” said John. “She only really needed the clinical components.”
Undeterred, Liz enrolled in everything they required, passed them all and applied to the nursing program with Chapel Hill also giving her a full scholarship. According to John, Liz “knocked the socks off” nursing school and finished around third in the state on the nursing boards. In fact, Liz did so well, Chapel Hill officials came to her and asked her to apply to medical school.
John said she passed on that offer. She had already paid quite a price to get where she was and had done so with two kids who were still quite young. It was at that point Liz turned her attention to working with a long list of healthcare-related charities.
In the mid-90s, the children were getting older, and things were settling down for the Skvarlas. Around that time an advertisement by Pfeiffer University for Master’s in Business Administration and Health Administration degrees through a satellite location caught Liz’s attention.
“So, Liz goes over to Pfeiffer, and they say how great it is she has all this background and curriculum in nursing and psychology and all of this board work,” said John. “But if you want an MBA…you don’t have any accounting.”
Of course, she then dutifully took two semesters of accounting to get into the MBA program.
Liz enrolled in the program and made it about halfway through when she made the decision at that point to finish only the Master’s in Health Administration. She was near the homestretch, with around nine credit hours to go and two finals coming up that would have cleared six of those nine credits, when a serious turn of events stopped her in her tracks.
That event was a phone call with urgent news that her father had been in a horrific car accident and had suffered severe head injuries. The call came just days before her final exams.
“Not only did she not take the exams, she rushed to Florida and stayed with her father,” said John. “Her mission at that time was to take care of him. He had serious head injuries.” Skvarla added that Liz’s father died a few years later and was in his mid-to-late 80’s.
John said it was ironic that she had such tremendous past educational experience and had been truly excelling in the Pfeiffer program, but that no one had contacted her about missing her last two exams.
It was almost a decade later, in the early 2000s, she was asked to join the Foundation of Hope Board, which is the largest foundation of its kind in the state. The foundation is known for raising over $1 million a year to support mental health research at the Department of Neurosciences at UNC Chapel Hill. Liz has served on the board for over 13 years and has helped to reorganize the foundation’s board over time to include doctors and medical professionals.
After reading an article about alternative and remote forms of learning, it dawned on John that there had to be a way for Liz, who was only really short a credit or two, to get that Master’s in Health Administration degree finished. And, unbeknownst to Liz, off John went to Pfeiffer to investigate.
John said he talked to the provost, Dr. Tracy Espy, who “got right away” what he was trying to do. It could be done, but there would be hurdles ahead, just like there had been in the past for Liz. Degrees are not just handed out. Panels would have to hear the case and approvals would have to be obtained from accreditors, faculty, administrators and trustees.
The board of the Foundation of Hope, including all of the doctors, wrote “a remarkable letter” in support of Liz receiving the degree according to John, who said it took over two years for the whole process of approvals to play out.
“I thought they were just going to give her the master’s,” said John. “Well, lo and behold, Dr. Espy calls and says that the board has decided to award her a Ph.D. in Humane Letters.”
John said it was “quite a shock” for him to hear, but the shock for Liz was yet to come.
Plans to surprise Liz were set into motion. John enlisted the help of friends and some “lovely ladies” assisted in extending invitations to a surprise party for Liz.
Under the guise that a large donor wanted to help the Foundation of Hope, John whisked Liz to the Angus Barn where 120 of their friends and family were secretly waiting.
Once there and the doors opened, Liz had her first hint that they were not there for a donor meeting. John took the floor about 20 or so minutes after they arrived and unleashed the tale of Liz’s journey, finishing with the award of the Ph.D.
“She had no idea what was going on,” said Mary Callow, a friend who has known Liz for several years. “She kept saying, ‘why is he talking about this?’”
While there was no word count on John’s speech that night, Liz’s look of shock mixed with amazement as he was talking easily said a thousand words.
“I knew she was whip-smart and well-informed,” said friend Nan Miller, adding that Liz had a look of astonishment on her face as John recalled her accomplishments in his speech.
“There is nobody in the world I know that is more humble, more deserving and has earned something like this more,” said John about his wife.
While Liz at least had some type of celebration earlier this year, it’s bittersweet. Had ceremonies not been canceled due to the pandemic, she, like graduates all over the world this year, would have received her degree at the time-honored tradition of commencement. So, it would seem, that yet another obstacle has been placed in Liz’s way, but this time, she’s not alone.