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Mersadies Shantie: Rising above tragedy to earn a free college education

Written by
VSAC Staff

February 27, 2024


Mersadies Shantie

On February 12, 2018, when Mersadies Shantie was 12 years old, her mom suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. That night, still stunned from the loss, Mersadies left her home in Mooers Forks, New York, and moved to Sheldon, Vermont, to live with her dad, stepmom and three adopted sisters.

“It was kind of stressful,” says Mersadies, now 19. Even as she talks about her devastating loss and the series of school moves she went through during that time – attending four different schools in three years – she is bright and upbeat, focusing on the positive. “I made lots of good friends at Sheldon Elementary, and I had a great experience at Enosburg High School,” where she graduated at the top of her class. “It was good to have a steady environment, and I loved the opportunities that high school gave me.”

Optimism makes a difference

According to Kate Rowland, a VSAC outreach counselor who worked with Mersadies during her high school years through VSAC’s Talent Search college and career preparation program, Mersadies is a strong optimist. “Mersadies has had some incredibly challenging life experiences, and she has risen above it all. She is wise beyond her years, and she’s also just about the hardest-working student I have ever had the privilege of working with,” says Rowland.

Optimism has its benefits. Throughout her high school journey, Mersadie's positive outlook has been matched with support and encouragement from her high school guidance counselor, Rowland. Having support and guidance has allowed Mersadies to earn a free college education along with essential financial aid to support her plans to become a nurse. She's now a freshman at the University of Vermont, and also head of the First Generation student program.

Mersadies’ interest in health care was inspired by her mom, who worked as a home health aide and was remembered for being compassionate and big-hearted. “I used to go with my mom to visit her patients,” Mersadies recalls.

I loved seeing how she would take care of people. In high school, I felt drawn to health care too, but there was a part of me that was scared to try it. I was talking about studying business. But luckily, my guidance counselor encouraged me to sign up for the medical program at the start of my junior year.

With that impetus, Mersadies started taking classes at the Cold Hollow Career Center, located on the Enosburg campus. Cold Hollow is also affiliated with Richford and Enosburg High Schools. The Cold Hollow LNA program ended up being a great fit. “I absolutely loved it,” says Mersadies.

Finding new options through VSAC

Through the two-year program, Mersadies attended morning classes at the high school. Once classes were over, she walked to the career center in the afternoons. At Cold Hollow, she took medical courses that allowed her to earn her certification as a Licensed Nursing Assistant (LNA) during her senior year.

“I got so many opportunities through Enosburg High School. I’m really grateful,” says Mersadies, who was a consistent 4.0 student. Her good grades also led to her being selected for the Upward Bound program, which helps top-caliber students prepare for college. However, the design of the program – which mostly involves group activities and events – ended up not being the best fit for Mersadies. Recognizing that, she turned to Rowland and VSAC’s Talent Search program.

“From my first meeting with Kate, I realized, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for,” Mersadies says. “I met with Kate once a week, and she offered so much support. She made it such a smooth process.”

When she started her college search, Mersadies thought she wanted to go to school outside of Vermont. Her plans changed toward the end of her junior year when she won the prestigious Green and Gold Scholarship from the University of Vermont. This scholarship is offered to the top student at each Vermont high school and covers full University of Vermont (UVM) tuition for all four years.

“I was like, wow! I wasn’t expecting it at all. I was speechless,” Mersadies recalls. “The opportunity wasn’t one I could pass up.” She adds that she ended up attending a number of campus events as a result. The more she saw of the school and the more people she met, the more Mersadies realized how much UVM had to offer.

Finding community with a little push

Now a little more than halfway through her freshman year in UVM’s nursing program, Mersadies says, “I love it.” UVM’s First Gen Program and community have also been a key source of support. “I did the First-Gen orientation, where we got to move onto campus early. There were 14 of us in our group, from all over the country, and 8 of us have remained really close friends,” she says.

Once again, Mersadies says she needed a little push to join that group, for which she’s now incredibly grateful. “I wasn’t actually going to go to that orientation. But Kate said, ‘What’s the worst that could happen? Give it a try!’ She pushed me to connect with people, and I’m so glad she did.” College has already proven to be an incredible growth experience.

In high school, I was focused on academics, and I wasn’t one to join groups or go out. In college I’ve expanded my horizons a bit, and I feel more comfortable attending events, meeting new people and reaching out to connect with resources I feel could help me. The events at UVM have been fun. And I recently went to the tutoring center to get some help with my chemistry work.

Honoring her mother through laughs

Mersadies is also taking advantage of workforce development funding, made available through VSAC and the State of Vermont. Vermont's Workforce Development programs offer loan forgiveness to students in many high-demand career fields, including nursing. One of the key requirements is the students commit to working in Vermont after graduation. For Mersadies, this program has covered all of her living expenses, which became even more important just recently, when she decided to move out of her stepmom’s house and become an independent student. “I’m currently debt-free, and I’m so thankful for that. It’s taken so much stress off my shoulders.”

If not for the scholarship and the workforce development funding, she says, “I really don’t think I would be here. I wouldn’t be able to pay for college by myself.”

Mersadies is excited to continue her health care work, both currently – balancing her LNA job with her coursework – and after she graduates. While she isn’t sure yet what her nursing specialty will be, she says her experience working in nursing homes has her interested in possibly concentrating on eldercare. It’s also a way for her to connect with, and honor, her mom’s memory.

“My mom is a big inspiration for who I want to be in the health care field. I see a lot of her in the way I take care of my patients. She was always a big jokester, and that’s something I take with me into each patient’s room. I don’t know what they’re going through, but I want to try to lighten up their day. I want to be that person that’s there for patients, because everyone deserves that.”