Grad stared down disease, kept eye on degree

By Cassandra Coria
GCU News Bureau

It’s not unusual for graduates’ eyes to shine with tears and pride upon receiving their degree.

But Telsamia Major Harrison’s eyes told a much deeper story at Grand Canyon University’s Spring Commencement.

The South Carolina woman started crying even before the ceremony began, reflecting a life afflicted by sickle cell anemia.

Telsamia Major Harrison overcame her battle with sickle cell anemia to earn her GCU degree.

People can tell whether the effects of the disease are about to strike Harrison – her eyes become jaundiced. But now that she finally had earned her Bachelor of Science in Sociology with an Emphasis in Social Work, culminating a quest that began in 1994, her eyes were filled with tears of joy.

“It’s not time to cry yet,” the woman next to her suggested.

For Harrison, though, it was wholly appropriate.

“This is over a 20-year experience to get to this spot," she said. "That feeling of not accomplishing or completing a goal, it means so much to me. I’m actually finished.”

Harrison is different from most sickle cell patients for a simple reason: She has outlasted the disease. 

“They have really hard lives, strokes or dying at a young age. I didn’t have that story,” she said.

The effects of her affliction did not escalate until she entered college in Atlanta, when she learned that it was triggered by stress.

Her normal college day looked like this: She would attempt to attend class, then would become ill and have to go to a clinic or hospital for treatment.  

Hospital stays could last up to a month.

“I would register, get ready for class, then end up in the hospital for five days and decide not to go,” she said.

The stress turned into depression.

“Watching friends graduate and become successful made me feel like I hadn’t accomplished anything,” Harrison said.

But she always could count on the support of her grandmother, who routinely would travel from her home in South Carolina to Atlanta to be with Harrison.

“I could be full of drugs from being sick, and I would wake up and my grandma would be right by my side,” Harrison said.

Something else was making Harrison sick: She couldn’t stand the idea of spending money on college and not earning a degree.

“So I said to myself, ‘If I gotta pay this money for this student doggone loan, I need a piece of paper to go with it!’”

Then she found GCU.

“When I applied to GCU, everything just kinda fell into place. I just kept working it because the student loans don’t go away,” she said.

Her GCU Student Services counselor made the transition that much smoother.

“I knew everything that was going on and everything that was required of me,” Harrison said. “As we got to the end and I wanted to apply for a job, I had someone I could go ask questions to.”

Harrison has received red blood cell transfusions for the last four years to reduce the tightness and pain sickle cell causes in her chest.

In an odd way, the onset of the pandemic helped her. It made her slow down and balance her workload with her family commitments.

“Because of COVID, there wasn’t a whole bunch of working. So even though it was a very bad thing, it gave me the necessary time to sit down and complete it,” she said.

Harrison works for the Charleston High School District in Charleston, South Carolina, as a student concern specialist.

But her experience working in a jail last year inspired her to try to make an impact on troubled youth.

“To see that 98% of those kids were African American men broke my heart because I have a son,” she said. 

Harrison has known one constant through her travails.

“God,” she said. “We started this journey in 1994, and I didn’t think we were going to get to this point. There was a time I didn’t think I was going to make it to this graduation. God has provided every step of the way.”


Related content:

GCU Today: Coma to Commencement: Grad's miraculous journey

GCU Today: Commencement fervor wows crowd with fervor


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