By AnneMarie Hunter
A single mother of two young sons, Leanne Nixon graduated in May 2021 with a bachelor of science from Washington State University’s (WSU) College of Nursing. Leanne first pursued her nursing degree in 2012. However, while in the midst of this program, Leanne battled a methamphetamine addiction that threatened her life, dreams, and future.
“My life was completely destroyed within a matter of months,” Leanne said. “I lost my home, my kids, my car, and dropped out of school. WSU tried to help me, but I refused their help and denied I had a problem. I was so scared if I told anyone the truth, I would destroy my chances of ever becoming a nurse. I was homeless and hopeless for roughly five years, using more and more meth to numb the pain I felt for how badly I’d screwed up my life.”
During this time, Leanne became pregnant.
“When I became pregnant with my son, Gage, I knew I couldn’t bear to lose another child. It would have literally killed me,” she said. “So, I went to Anna Ogden Hall and spoke to my counselor about my dream of becoming a nurse and the intense sadness I felt that wouldn’t be able to fulfill this dream.”
Her counselor encouraged Leanne to reopen the door to her dream, and her academic advisor, Laura Wintersteen-Arleth, was there to help her through the process.
“Leanne had to reapply for school,” said Wintersteen-Arleth, a Teaching Associate Professor who retired from the College of Nursing in May. “If she received an invite, she’d have to interview, and if accepted, would essentially start nursing school all over.
“Against all odds, she did get accepted. I think her desire and commitment came through in the interview and people wanted her to succeed as well.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to graduate without scholarships,” she said. “This was my second attempt at nursing school, and the scholarships were essential to afford my schooling.”
Leanne credits Wintersteen-Arleth with both helping her pursue her dream and learning to trust her own inner strength.
“Laura’s door was always open,” Leanne said. “And she was there to encourage and guide me.”
A NEW BEGINNING
When Leanne began this second nursing program in 2019, she was burdened with doubt and apprehension on many fronts.
“I worried I wasn’t going to be able to do it after being out of school for so long,” she said. “Plus, after five years of meth use, I wondered if my brain was going to be too damaged.”
Nevertheless, in the face of these concerns, Leanne navigated the program as a single mother to Gage, a toddler, and Kylan, 12. Key to her success was perceiving hurdles as opportunities.
“Nursing school is tough on its own, but worrying about finances and kids at the same time was extremely challenging,” she said. “Every hour of my day was planned, so I got really good at time management. In a way, I think being a single mom actually helped me.”
Leanne stayed focused, despite the unexpected events that would occur along the way.
“I was ambitious in my schoolwork and started every assignment as soon as possible. That was vital in getting through school because things did happen. The boys got sick, my youngest had to get stitches, day care shut down because of Covid-19. But, I made it through.”
Her son, Kylan was there for the simultaneously challenging and victorious journey.
“My mom did really well in nursing school,” Kylan said. “She kept persevering and getting really good grades.”
There were also moments that lightened the journey.
One day, on the way out the door to a clinical, Leanne told Gage she was going to help mothers have their babies.
“He started to cry and said, ‘I want to go help mothers have babies, too. I love babies.’”
On homework evenings, Gage would sit beside his mom and draw with his Etch A Sketch.
“‘He’d say, ‘See, I’m doing my homework, too,’” Leanne recalled.
Throughout the program, Wintersteen-Arleth spent time with Leanne and her children.
“Theirs is truly a loving family,” said Wintersteen-Arleth, who also was a single mother when she attended nursing school and knows the difficulties students can face in this circumstance. “She struggled significantly financially, but always had a belief things would work out for her and her children. She knew she was giving them a better life and being an example to them.”
FAMILY LIFE AND EXPERIENCES
During her program, Leanne focused her learning on psychiatric care. In July, she started a psychiatric nursing position at Passages Family Support in Spokane. Her interest in this specialty was inspired by childhood experiences, in particular her younger brother’s.
“I was adopted at age five, after suffering severe abuse and neglect,” she said. “My brother, John, was also adopted. He’d been so abused, it caused mental disabilities. He had a heart of gold and I watched him struggle. He knew he was different – and kids were so mean to him because he was different. I loved John and wanted to help him.”
Leanne and John’s adoptive parents, Jeanie and Gary, provided a peaceful, loving home for them. Gary passed away when Leanne was 10, but Jeanie remarried and Leanne became close with her new dad, Chris. During nursing school, Leanne called her parents nearly every day.
“My parents listened to my struggles and rejoiced with me in my successes,” she said. “They’ve been my biggest cheerleaders. Even when I was on the streets, they were always there and my mom would tell me she was proud of me. Though I didn’t see anything to be proud of, she was giving me a reason to believe in myself and letting me know she would always be there, no matter what.”
FAITH AND HOPE
Leanne also credits her faith for helping her survive the past and build her future.
“Even during the meth, I knew God was there and loved me unconditionally. Miracles happened and He had His hand on me the whole time,” she said.
Wintersteen-Arleth was inspired by Leanne’s perseverance and commitment.
“Leanne faced failing out of nursing school once, drug addiction, homelessness, single parenting, severe financial difficulties, and coming back to school,” Wintersteen-Arleth said. “Through it all, she preserved because of her desire to be a RN and a belief this was God’s plan for her life. She has a strength you don’t see in a lot of people. It’s probably been one of my greatest joys as an instructor to be a part of her journey.”
Along with her faith, Leanne also believes hope is essential and it propels her passion as a healer.
“In 2013, I lost my hope and that was my downfall. As a nurse, I want to treat my patients with dignity and compassion while providing them hope,” said Leanne, whose future plans include becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner. “Hope gives you the desire to live, even if you’re in a horrible circumstance. If you have hope, you can get through.”
Ahead of her graduation in May, Leanne wrote a reflection about her journey since 2012.
“I’m remembering 5 years of homelessness and living in my truck.
I’m remembering the steps I took to change my life.
I’m remembering when I was told I was gifted a second chance.
I’m remembering my commitment to the people who believe in me.
I will graduate with my Bachelor of Science in Nursing on May 7th. My hope is that my story will ignite compassion and forgiveness.”
Read Leanne’s complete 2021 WSU Graduation Reflection.