One might think caring for five children would make finding the time to pursue a degree or certificate program impossible. Misty McElligott, of St. Genevieve, MO, currently studying international affairs swiftly disproves that theory. Her children range in age from 11-16. She previously worked at a nursing home as a certified nursing assistant, working 50-hour weeks and making minimum wage. Now, in the process of getting her degree, her goal is to become a human rights lawyer and prosecute perpetrators of sex trafficking. “My family is really supportive, especially my husband. He knew I wanted to go back to school when we got married,” she says.
Keep reading to learn how Misty is able to work towards fulfilling her goal while going back to school through the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (CAPS).
What are you studying at CAPS, and what is your dream job?
I’m studying for a combined master’s and bachelor’s program in international affairs. Next, I plan to attend law school to study international law, and fight sex trafficking.
Eventually I’d love to open my own center, or a couple of centers, to rescue these children and give them a place to stay. I want to create a safe haven for survivors, and prosecute the hell out of the people who kidnapped them in the first place. My husband is a Navy veteran, and eventually I’d also like to set up a network of institutions that provide free therapy dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD. That’s the goal.
What were you doing before attending CAPS?
I was working as a CNA (certified nursing assistant) taking care of residents at a nursing home. I’d help residents with their needs: bathing, shaving, getting dressed, eating and walking—things like that. But I was working myself to death, and I knew I could do something more. About eight months after I got married, I went back to school and got my associate’s degree. On a whim I thought, “I want to go to WashU and become a lawyer.” I sent in my application, and here I am.
It’s very overwhelming, but extremely rewarding for me. I love learning new things. It’s been the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had. The professors are top-notch and really understanding.
They know we have lives. This semester I’m taking four classes online. It’s been crazy, but we do it. I am 120 percent determined to get through these programs and get my degrees.
What led you to become so passionate about joining the find to end sex trafficking?
I live in St. Genevieve, and we have a very small community. There were three girls—classmates of my daughter—who were almost kidnapped by a sex-trafficking ring. I wanted to start combating anyone I could possibly track down to save these children from being kidnapped. I’m extremely passionate about it, and my kids are as well.
What is it like to take this time to pursue your own passions?
It’s amazing. I’ve had such an incredible experience. I grew up in an abusive household where I was constantly told I was stupid and that I wasn’t good enough. My mom died when I was sixteen, and I had the option to live with my abusive step father or be homeless. So I dropped out of school and chose to be homeless.
As time goes by, I get more excited and more motivated. I can’t wait to graduate. When I graduated with my associate’s and walked at commencement, I cried when I put my gown on—because I did something, and I did it well. I was a C student in high school. Living in an abusive home, I didn’t care. I never anticipated getting this far. I was really surprised I could get A’s. The professors have just opened their doors to let me feel my way through it. They understand what I’ve been going through. I have a huge support system. I also received a scholarship that has helped pay for part of it, which couldn’t have come at a better time.
How is your WashU education bringing you closer to your goals?
A lot of people say it’s the WashU name—that once you get the degree, it opens up all these doors. But, also, I really think it’s the professors. They want you to succeed, and they are actually concerned with how you’re getting through the class. And my advisor, Elisa Wang—just being able to talk to her gives me all these ideas and avenues I can take, in case one doesn’t work out. They help me slow down and open my eyes. And the atmosphere is just lovely. My first day of class in January, I was going to my public speaking class, which terrified me—but I knew I needed to do it. I walked up the steps through that huge Brookings archway, and I had this huge feeling of pride. I’m the only person in my family who went to college. I’m this little hick girl from the sticks, going to the fancy school and getting a fancy degree. And now here I am. Whenever I walk on campus, it’s a surreal feeling.
What drives you to work towards your larger goal of enacting positive change in the world?
It’s my kids, honestly. If I could save even one child from the horrors of sex trafficking, my heart’s complete. But I won’t stop at just one. I have this insane determination to help people, because I was never really helped. So, my purpose now is to help people, so they don’t feel like I felt: that no one cared. Giving is in my blood. For me, I have to be able to help people with no gain for myself. And I want people to know that they can do it. I couldn’t picture myself this way five years ago.
This opportunity to study gave me a boost of self-confidence, which I’ve never had. It helps me to believe that I am smart enough—that I am good enough.
Note: this post was originally published with Alive Magazine.