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It’s never too late: Student speaker Teresa Novakovich on pursuing your dreams

by Catalina Myers  |   

Teresa Novakovich poses in front of the UAA Alaska Airlines Center
It’s been 35 years since Teresa Novakovich, UAA’s spring 2022 student speaker, first walked onto campus. As she prepares to address this year’s graduating class, she hopes to instill the simple wisdom that it’s never too late. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Teresa Novakovich’s journey as an undergrad began 35 years ago. Shortly after walking onto UAA’s campus, Novakovich married the love of her life and left school to raise a family. In the interim years before returning to UAA, she raised five children, ran a small family business with her husband until 2017 and unexpectedly stumbled upon a job she realized could become a career. 

Newly unemployed after the family business closed, Novakovich needed a job quickly. She was referred to an administrative assistant position with the South Central Alaska Area Health Education Center (SCAHEC). She fell in love with the work and mission of the local nonprofit to promote health care workforce development in Alaska. A few months into her new job, the nonprofit was looking to hire a health education coordinator. Novakovich’s previous experience in human resources landed her on the hiring committee. During this process, she realized she was qualified for the job — and really wanted it.

“After the interviews, I looked at the director and said, ‘I could do that, I would be really great at it,’” Novakovich said. “But, the job required a bachelor's degree. That was the minimum requirement, which I didn’t pass.”

Novakovich realized right then that she would need to go back to school if she wanted her dream career. 

“I had a lot more to give and my lack of education was really putting a ceiling on how much I could give and how much I could do,” she said. “Even though I had the knowledge and the experience, in order to get in the door or have those opportunities, I had to have that degree.”

So, for the second time in her life, Novakovich enrolled at UAA. After meeting and discussing possible degree tracks, she settled on sociology and started plugging away at her degree, a few classes at a time. It was a perfect match. The further she progressed through her program, the more interested and engaged she became and saw her degree's real-world applications in her professional life. 

While pursuing her degree, Novakovich was promoted to a health educator at SCAHEC; she’s been promoted three times. Her life experience as a mother, small business owner and her education from UAA was enough for her employer to decide her contributions to their organization were invaluable. 

“It’s been really amazing, my education has opened so many doors,” said Novakovich. “I’m now making an income that supports my family, I’m in a really good spot right now. I am doing things professionally that honestly I never thought I’d do.”

For Novakovich, returning to school as a nontraditional student was intimidating. She worried that the 35-year gap between her first time pursuing higher education and now would impede her ability to keep up with her much younger peers. But her fears quickly diminished when she arrived on campus and met her professors and classmates. She said their support and having a great student advisor made a significant impact on her educational experience. 

“It was just a big scary thing in front of me but once I got into it, it wasn’t scary at all,” Novakovich said. “After the first semester I had a lot of confidence. Going back to school really expanded my perspective on the world. My children have told me, ‘Mom you have just grown exponentially since you’ve gone back to school.’”

A lot has changed in the last 35 years and over the previous five years when Novakovich started on her higher education journey for the second time. She said in 1987, women’s roles looked a lot different than they do now, and for her, the role of mother and wife didn’t intersect with education and career. So she chose one and let the dream of the other go. But now, in her late 50s, she’s realized an invaluable life lesson. It’s never too late. 

She hopes her story and that simple message resonate with her younger peers during her commencement speech and with her nontraditional classmates. But even further than that, she hopes her message reaches and inspires someone in the audience, sitting with the same hesitation she had five years ago and that her experience encourages them to take that leap of faith to pursue their dreams of obtaining a degree — no matter their age.

“I thought I went down this road and would not have this opportunity again,” Novakovich said. “But now I’m back on this road, after so many years and there are big things that are really amazing happening.”

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