APU Online Learning Original

Alumni Stories: Giving Thanks for Overcoming Hard Times

By Amanda Wilson
AVP, Student & Alumni Affairs

and Crystal Laiosa
Alumna, American Public University

American Public University (APU) graduate Crystal Laiosa is thankful. She is thankful for the life she’s built and thankful for the University and her community of support for helping make her dreams come true. Her story stands out.

APU alumna Crystal Laiosa

Crystal is back again to conquer her second degree – a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in coaching and conflict resolution. Earlier this year, Crystal completed her bachelor’s degree in business administration and jumped right back in, understanding the importance of education and lifelong learning.

Crystal’s story is about overcoming hard times – personally and professionally – and triumphantly rising above them. Crystal quotes Willy Wonka: “Charlie, do you know what happened to the boy who suddenly got everything he ever wanted? He lived happily ever after,” noting that she’s done it – she’s achieved one of her ultimate goals of obtaining a college degree.

Overcoming Hard Times

It was during a divorce and selling her business that Crystal realized she needed to go back to college, and she describes this time in her journey as nearly unbearable. She says, “I worked so hard for what I had built, and starting over again was really tough.”

It was a challenging time. She was raising her four-year-old son who has cystic fibrosis, working a split shift (5 a.m. to 6 p.m.), and using her breaks to tackle anything she could. That work included cleaning, laundry, dinner, showers, her son’s homework, her own homework, administering her son’s vest and breathing treatments, and simply trying to hold everything together.

She recalls a day that her son came home from school with no coat. Crystal says, “At that time, the only food we had was deer meat I bought from a friend. I was counting dollars, and when he lost his coat it was like a punch in the face. I couldn’t win!”

They were living life day to day, 24 hours at a time, and some days were better than others during those hard times. Crystal had to make difficult decisions like “Do we buy food or hygiene products?” She notes, “Being hungry is the biggest inspiration of all; if you’ve never taken a nap so you didn’t have to pay for a meal, you don’t know what being poor is.”

It all came into sharp focus one day when her son made a small request. He wanted a puppy. For him, it was so easy; for Crystal, she knew exactly what she had to do. That day, she made him a promise: “When I graduate and get us a house, I will get you a puppy.”

Crystal was ready to bounce back from hard times. She says, “I didn’t want my son to worry about how he was going to pay for bills, clothes or food.”

Academics at APU

Crystal notes that the University offered her affordable tuition, a schedule that was flexible and fast-paced, and people who were genuine advocates for her education. She observes, “The faculty and staff helped me turn my life around.”

Getting started in her program, Crystal decided she would be relentless in her academic pursuit. She printed out her course progression and taped it to her wall. With each class she completed, she would cross it off, one by one. She also made sure to look at her plans and deadlines every day and blocked off an hour a day to focus on her studies. Crystal notes that time management was one of the keys to her success – simply remaining unwavering in her schedule.

When asked for a standout moment, Crystal recalls working closely with a career coach and recommends that others do the same. She says, “My career coach worked with me to go through my skills, my career history and my resume in order to help me present the best possible version of myself to employers.”

Professional Life

At the same time, Crystal was in a career transition. After selling her wedding and corporate catering business, she began working with nonprofits as an educator and writing grants on the side for any organization that asked. After a successful first run at writing a grant, she took on as many grant-writing projects as she could find.

Nonprofit work is an important part of her story. Crystal explains, “Before my brother died at age four, he was granted a wish based on his life-threatening illness. I knew at a young age – age seven – I wanted to work for an organization like that. I felt like I owed them.”

While working toward her degree, Crystal was focused on her professional goals and finding a role well suited for her experience and passion. She sent out her resume, gauging the job market and looking for opportunities. Crystal recently accepted a position as the director of development for an all-boys prep school and serves on three philanthropic, development and advancement boards.

Crystal’s favorite aspect of her career is working with people. She writes grants, cultivates donor relationships, and engages with alumni and their parents. She observes, “I find a lot of joy working directly with students [on the Youth Philanthropy of Ashtabula]. The program gives away $5,000 to the school caretaker of the money, and the students decide which nonprofit to grant the funds to. It’s incredible to watch the students analyze the needs of our community, budget the funds and correspond with the organizations.”

Her Happily Ever After

In 2021, Crystal completed her bachelor’s degree, started a new job, bought a new house, started a master’s program and bought her son a new puppy. Referring again to her Willy Wonka quote, she says: “It wasn’t just a puppy. That puppy was a symbol of our happily ever after. My son is the boy who got everything he ever wanted and he will live happily ever after.” For that, she is thankful.

She adds, “The bachelor’s degree was intended to get myself and my son out of financial ruin. The master’s degree is because I want more than that.”

Today, Crystal is focused on finishing her current program, but has her eyes on building upward. She dreams of working with a foundation such as Make-A-Wish or Give Kids the World, and she may dabble in real estate investments. To utilize another Willy Wonka metaphor, Crystal Laiosa is thankful for the “golden ticket” that got her through hard times to where she is today.

About the Author

Amanda Wilson joined the University in 2008, after four years teaching and coaching in Jefferson County, West Virginia. Amanda serves as the Associate Vice President of Student and Alumni Affairs, developing and expanding co-curricular programming and engagement opportunities for students and alumni primarily at a distance.

Throughout her tenure, Amanda has developed the strategy and laid the groundwork for a variety of programs to include mentoring, student organizations, virtual communities, and campus leadership initiatives. Amanda is currently pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) in Organizational Leadership from Walden University. She holds a master’s degree in business from American Public University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Radford University. Amanda is also a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, and a member and Chapter Advisor for the West Virginia Students’ Alliance.

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