Life gave Stephanie Woodson plenty of reasons to just quit. She didn’t. 

Growing up in Milwaukee, she persevered through several adverse childhood experiences. Split up from her siblings, Woodson even endured spurts of homelessness. She didn’t give up. 

“I knew the choice was up to me,” Woodson said. “There were opportunities I didn’t want to miss. I knew I had to leave my environment to be able to come back and make a change.” 

A graduate of John Marshall High School, she was accepted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with sights set on becoming an athletic trainer. Academic excellence and a new-found passion for research lead to Woodson becoming a McNair Scholars Program participant. She switched her professional career goals toward promoting healthy living, especially in marginalized communities. 

“I’m extremely interested in public health and more specifically health equity, health disparities in regard to the Black community,” Woodson said. “My grandmother and my maternal uncle did not survive their first heart attack. My grandmother was 56 and my uncle was just 45. I had to figure out what is happening in my family.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic brought campus life to a screeching halt in March 2020. No more in-person classes or parties. Pledging for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority even went virtual.  

Then, the unthinkable happened. Her mother died suddenly on May 25, 2020. Woodson found the strength to finish college. It’s something her mother would have wanted. And it’s what Woodson desperately needed.  

Senior year arrived remotely, and Woodson kept her grades up even with family life still throwing low punches. Now 23, the remarkable UW-Madison student, steadfast in accomplishing her dreams, is in the process of seeking guardianship of a younger sister. It’s her duty, she explained. 

Commencement was in sight. Senioritis hit and a quick trip to Phoenix, Arizona, to hang out with friends, exposed and infected Woodson with the coronavirus. Sinus pain and body aches didn’t deter her from completing her finals. 

The unprecedented nature of the pandemic is no small feat. 

“A lot of people think COVID is getting closer to being over,” Woodson said. “However, people are still catching it and dying from it. The virus reveals exacerbated symptoms in members of the Black community. We still have to be cautious.” 

On May 8, Woodson received her Bachelor’s of Science degree in Health Promotion, Health Equity. In the fall, she will pursue a Master’s of Public Health from Emory University, The Rollins School of Public Health, in Atlanta. 

“From there, I plan to pursue my Ph.D.,” said Woodson, who exemplifies mental toughness. “I want to continue researching and create evidence-based programing specifically to reduce health disparities in the Black community.” 

So, how did Woodson find the grit and determination to earn her diploma?

“It’s God,” she said. “God gives me the strength to keep going. Everything I’ve been through made me who I am today. … If I want things to be better for myself and for future generations to come, I know I’m responsible for changing my circumstances, by doing whatever I can.”