Great Grad: Environmental health major graduates after pursuing degree for 10 years

Aletta Kosakewich in wedding dress outside
Aletta Kosakewich on her wedding day. (Photo courtesy of Aletta.)

Most of Aletta Eagle Kosakewich’s family didn’t even buy plane tickets to come to Colorado for her graduation until April – “to make sure I was actually graduating,” she said with a lighthearted laugh.

Kosakewich has been pursuing a degree in environmental health for almost 10 years, and this spring will cross the stage as a college graduate – the first in her family to do so.

“I didn’t think I’d ever go to college,” Kosakewich said. “I’m first generation and just never saw myself doing it.”

Aletta Kosakewich hugging husband in front of Christmas tree
Aletta Kosakewich and her husband, Kent Kosakewich. (Photo courtesy of Aletta.)

The New Yorker moved to Colorado with her now husband in 2003, and her manager at Walmart noticed her interest in school, urging her to enroll. “He joked about how if I didn’t start going to college, he’d fire me so I wouldn’t have a choice,” Kosakewich said with a laugh.

In 2007, she took a campus tour at Front Range Community College, five miles south of Colorado State University, and told her husband, “I think I want to do this.” She applied and enrolled.

One year later, the economy crashed and Kosakewich’s husband lost his job, and he began pursuing a degree in math. She returned to work full time at Walmart, and eventually changed jobs to work evenings as a custodian at CSU’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital – while still a full-time student – to ease the financial stress.

One February night in 2013, Kosakewich developed a cough. Assuming she was catching a cold, she went home to sleep, but when she awoke, she was covered in hives. A trip to the emergency room revealed Kosakewich had a painful and disruptive autoimmune disease. “Basically, I’m allergic to myself,” she said.

The diagnosis came on the heels of another autoimmune issue that resulted in four surgeries in just four years. “When my doctors told me I would be living with this autoimmune disease for the rest of my life, that was a dark day.”

Kosakewich’s doctor recommended she withdrawal from classes during especially tough semesters, but returned every semester with a renewed drive to graduate. “I had nothing else. Everything was falling out from under me, but school was the one thing I had for myself,” said Kosakewich.

Her CSU academic advisor, Erin Reichert, describes Kosakewich as the “poster child for tenacity.” But Kosakewich sees it simply as life, downplaying her triumphs as she recounts challenge after challenge.

“My grandfather used to tell my dad, ‘there is always light behind the clouds,’” Kosakewich said. “It’s true; it’s a scientific fact, but it’s also metaphorical. Life always gets better. Something will change, and everything will work out.”

A passion for health

Aletta Kosakewich with parents and brother
Aletta Kosakewich with her mother, father and brother. (Photo courtesy of Aletta.)

Kosakewich did not always know she wanted to major in environmental health, but knew she wanted a career that required a mix or science and humanities that helped people. Her academic advisor at Front Range Community College, Jennifer Sheaman, first introduced her to environmental health. Kosakewich describes it as “love at first sight” from that moment.

“I love environmental health for so many reasons. It’s interdisciplinary, and you have to know about every factor that can affect people, even anthropology,” said Kosakewich.

Her dream job? A normal, nine-to-five-job Monday through Friday. “I don’t need a specific job because I love all aspects of environmental health,” said Kosakewich, who is taking a week off from working at the hospital after graduation with the intent only to sleep and spend time with her husband and friends.

A less-demanding schedule tops Kosakewich’s list for a dream job, but she is also interested in working in biodefense and antiterrorism after graduation.

“I’ve been going to school for 10 years. I am so proud that I finally did it,” she said. “I had a lot of cheerleaders telling me I could do it,” said the Ram graduate. “My husband, my parents, my little brother, my best friends; they would do whatever it took to keep me going.”

Two of her biggest cheerleaders, mom and dad, are driving somewhere through Ohio right now to attend their first university graduation: their daughter’s.