No Dropping Out
Barrett Winston ’19 was done — done with school, done with people, done with hiding her life’s biggest challenge — and it was only her first year. Curled up on the Chi Omega sorority house’s red sofa, she cried out her feelings of being in a strange city with no friends while her mom — her best friend — faced death three hours away in a suburban Chicago hospital.
Details long hidden finally gushed out. Since the second week of class, Winston had managed college life while caring for her mother. The younger of two children in a close-knit family of three, she shouldered this family burden while her older sister juggled a job, family and an elderly grandparent in fragile health.
“My mom (Sheree Gollay Winston ’75) is everything to me,” Winston, who graduated in May, said. “It was hard coming back to school each week … She was dying, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Gollay Winston was diagnosed with MSSA — a staph infection similar to MRSA. By the time of the diagnosis, the infection had spread to her internal organs, and the initial medications triggered psychosis due to allergic reactions.
Winston, who had power of attorney, dealt with the stress of making decisions about her mother’s treatment while adjusting to the demands of college life. She announced her plans to drop out of school, go home and help the family. College could wait.
That declaration earned a strong rebuke from her resident advisor.
“She told me, ‘You’re going to talk to your professors or I’ll tell them.’ You’ve got too many people invested in you. You have to stay here so we can help you.”
A journey toward Winston’s healing began with an email to Associate Dean Rob Prescott. Conversations with her professors, including Seth Katz (English) and Jen Jost (biology) also helped. Once they knew the situation, they gave Winston the space and encouragement she needed to balance life’s demands and stay on track to graduate in three years.
“I didn’t ask for a lot of accommodation … They allowed me to succeed,” she said. “I was going through the worst of life, and it became one of my best years.”
Winston found a supportive campus community when she asked for help. She connected with study groups, volunteering opportunities and Orchesis Dance Company. New people became friends who offered comforting shoulders. The more Winston plugged into campus, the more she rediscovered herself, and an outgoing, friendly person slowly emerged from the chaos.
“I didn’t realize what I had until I needed it,” she said. “I had a network of people who followed through on their promises that I wasn’t just a number, even if it was ugly sometimes.”
Gollay Winston surprised doctors and returned home by Christmas, just a few months after the original diagnosis. Though left with lingering organ damage from the infection, medicine is able to manage the effects. As the lone known survivor from an MSSA case this severe, physicians will monitor Gollay Winston for the rest of her life.
The new graduate currently works in talent management and plans to pursue graduate school in the near future. Although once determined to escape the challenges of being a first-year student far from home, Winston not only finished her Bradley degree, she joined her mother in becoming an official member of Chi Omega’s Mu Delta chapter.
“That was one of the most full-circle moments of my life.”
— Matt Hawkins