The Art of Taking Little Steps


A consummate survivor, Mercedes Rain-Tree Adams has overcome tremendous obstacles to earn her degree—and develop a more positive outlook on the future.Adult learners stop out of school for many reasons.

Sometimes, the financial burden of a college education becomes too much to bear. For others, the struggle to balance courses with work and family results in the hard choice to leave school.

For Mercedes Rain-Tree Adams, family tragedy and the need to focus on her own mental health required a yearlong break from her studies at Old Dominion University. And even after returning to campus from her much-needed sabbatical, Mercedes faced obstacles, including frequent dips in motivation. “There were days I just wanted to quit,” she recalls. But as a survivor, this artist, US Navy veteran, and mother can now proudly call herself a college graduate—the first in her family—after having completed her degree in communications this past May.

“It wasn’t easy,” she admits. The secret, she says, is in finding momentum in small steps forward and in conversations with supporters, including her professors and ReUp Success Coach Nikita Krishnan. Returning to college “can look like this big obstacle and this heavy thing,” Mercedes shares, but “there were little, intimate moments that helped me realize, This is for me, and I can do this!



A way forward

Born in Long Beach, California, and raised in San Diego, Mercedes enlisted in the US Navy in her late teens. She and her two siblings decided to join the military to support their mother, who had been sick, and pay for her medical care. Unfortunately, during basic training, Mercedes’s mother passed away. The young recruit had the option to leave her contract, but the Navy offered her a new home and a new family. “So I decided to stick with it,” she says. The military provided another benefit: a college education paid for by the GI Bill®. At first, Mercedes was uncertain; she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do or whether she was going to make the Navy her career. But following what she calls “a little bit of a series of unfortunate events,” including an injury that would require her medical retirement from service, Mercedes knew that college was the way forward. “I have dreams; I have aspirations,” she says. “So I decided to sign up for Old Dominion, and by the grace of the gods, I was accepted and started with that journey.”


Motherhood and mental health

As a single mother attending college mostly full-time, she managed the care of her son, then five years old, by taking courses online, registering for a couple night classes, and choosing in-person daytime classes that met while her son was in school himself. She recalls frequently experiencing anxiety and worry as she balanced coursework with taking care of Xzavier. “But it was easy because he was supportive of it. . . . He’s such a happy kid, so it’s like, ‘I see my mom a lot, and the little bit of time I don’t see her, no big deal; she’s coming back!’” she says with a grateful laugh.

Mercedes felt motivated to achieve her goals because of her son and the desire to be first in her family to graduate from college. However, she soon met with significant traumas that understandably stalled her education: the deaths of two close family members within two years. “That was something that took a toll,” she remembers, “and I had to be honest with myself and my mental health.” She knew she had to take a break.


Regaining momentum

Mercedes’s year away from college was crucial to coming back strong. She says she decided to return to ODU and finish her degree in part because she wanted to demonstrate her resilience. “There were some naysayers,” she shares. “And I was like, You know what? I’m going to go back to prove to everybody that I can—that despite what I’ve been through, I can figure this out, I can navigate it, and I can finish.” She also wanted to serve as a role model for Xzavier. “I wanted my son to be proud to speak about all the things that I’ve done,” she says enthusiastically.

Another motivating factor was a new intellectual passion that would reinvigorate her interest in taking classes. Although a lover of the arts, Mercedes had initially decided to study environmental health science at ODU because she wanted to take on the challenge of a STEM major. But the coursework was, as she recalls, “a little bit more difficult than I thought it was going to be.” So during her time away from ODU, she met with a mentor about how she might finish out her GI Bill®. He recommended that Mercedes shift majors considering her interests and skills. She ended up falling in love with her new communications major, which was exciting not just because it was new but also because she felt she could excel in the field, which renewed her confidence in being able to finish her degree. It also helped immensely that her college tuition and fees were paid for thanks to her military service.

“So it was legacy, it was proving myself, and it was just me being interested,” she sums up. “The combination was like, OK, I’m just gonna do this. And if I fail, at least I know I’m walking away from it debt free.” Mercedes also knew she could move forward because she could hold her head high regardless of the outcome. “I can leave again, and people can still say that they’re proud of what I’ve already done,” she remembers thinking, “or I can finish, and they can be proud of this new accomplishment.


Success coaching: A no-judgment zone

Having lost loved ones and worked through setbacks in her mental and physical health, Mercedes knew returning to college would be tough, even with her renewed enthusiasm for earning her degree. Luckily, she had the support of therapy and career counseling. And during her last year at ODU, she was introduced to Nikita, her ReUp Success Coach. In all honesty, Mercedes admits she wasn’t excited about coaching at first. “I walked into it very cynical,” she says. “This is going to be meeting a new person, explaining my story. Maybe they don’t understand me. Maybe they judge me. Maybe they give me horrible advice,” she thought. “But it didn’t end up like that at all!”  After taking a “what do I have to lose?” attitude and connecting with Nikita, Mercedes realized what success coaching had to offer. “This is going to be us talking, her trying to help me to stay on track, her giving me coping mechanisms,” she describes. Nikita would go on to offer resources, point Mercedes in the right direction, and navigate her toward the graduation finish line.

Mercedes appreciates that she could talk to Nikita about both academics and life. “I felt like she was actually hearing me, and I’m not used to that,” she reflects. In addition to affirmation, Mercedes feels she gained accountability: each coaching session with Nikita ended with clear next steps for the day, the week, or the semester. “She did a really good job of being like, ‘OK, we still have to stay on track. I want to help you as much as I can with what you’re feeling, but also, we have to make sure you have a plan,’” Mercedes recalls. Those steps included everything from journaling, recording deadlines in calendars, making appointments to talk with professors, and thinking through additional help she might need. And when Mercedes’s motivation occasionally dipped, an email or text from Nikita was often the inspiration she needed to keep going. “I wanted to quit,” she says, “and those times, she just helped me keep the momentum.”

Nikita, meanwhile, attributes Mercedes’s ability to move forward to her indomitable spirit. “When someone has gone through the struggles Mercedes has,” she shares, “it’s natural to question the positives and have thoughts and feelings that are counterproductive to one’s success. There would be times she would find it hard to  even allow herself to feel the joy of that success. What stands out to me most is the fight she had within her. Even when she didn’t feel like doing it, she just did.”


The importance of life lessons

As she looks back on her time at ODU, Mercedes remembers loving her courses in French, conflict communication, yoga, and martial arts because her instructors offered support beyond academics. For example, one professor encouraged Mercedes not to lose her passion for learning and to overcome limiting beliefs that likely stemmed from past trauma and sometimes affected her grades. She ultimately developed the greatest respect for these faculty members because, she says, they took the time to redirect her perspective and her personal growth. “What I’m proud of is that I was able to have those more authentic moments and life lessons that helped me navigate through college life and just my normal life,” Mercedes shares. “Those very authentic moments changed the course of my life. . . . I was able to bump into some people that I believe crossed my path for a reason, and that really got me on a more positive way of thinking.”Thanks to her own persistence, the support of her instructors, and the guidance of her ReUp Success Coach, Mercedes crossed the stage at ODU’s commencement ceremonies in May 2022. “I never doubted for a second that she could do it,” Nikita says, “but I was excited because it meant that she proved to herself that she could do it. She could no longer deny her own greatness.”

Like many graduates, Mercedes felt that earning her degree was in some ways anticlimactic: “It was like, What’s next?” she recalls wondering. But it also opened up a wonderful sense of opportunity. “It’s exciting!” she says. “This means I get to close out this chapter and do something else, whatever that is.”

She was also beyond proud that Xzavier, now 10 years old, could see her walk the stage in her cap and gown. Her son, who had been a primary motivator for seeing her education through, was also her greatest cheerleader at graduation. “It was a lot of emotion,” Mercedes shares. “It was like, I did it, and this moment’s for me, and my son is here! He was so excited. . . . He was telling his teachers and his friends that he was just excited. He understood that it was something I was working hard for.”


Giving yourself a chance

Now bolstered by her bachelor of science in communications, Mercedes looks forward to bringing together her multidisciplinary interests. She hopes to design a career that combines her love for the arts with the community service she used to perform in the Navy, her passion for working with children, and the positive impacts of counseling. That career might also connect with her original course of study in environmental health science: she dreams of creating a program or even a nonprofit in which she can teach kids about plants and animals while also encouraging them to open up and express their feelings.

In the meantime, Mercedes is enjoying the extra time with her son and pursuing creative endeavors, such as painting, singing, and writing poetry. To her fellow adult learners who are considering returning to school, she says that it’s important to focus on the smaller to-do items that will eventually get you to your goal. “Just give it a chance,” she suggests. “Just sign the paper, fax it over, and then you’re good to go. It seems almost corny to say it, but it’s so true: you’d be surprised what you can accomplish just by taking little steps. Give it a chance; give yourself a chance.”