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Threads of resilience: Chelsae Thompson’s 14-year journey to a college degree

By: Brian Dunn May 15, 2024

The cerulean yarn wound around Chelsae Thompson’s knitting needles, growing stitch by stitch, just as her dream of a diploma has taken shape through years of starts, stops and relentless persistence.

Chelsae Thompson headshot

Her brown eyes never strayed. They kept a steady gaze forward as she shared her 14-year journey to a college degree. 

“Getting my degree is something I’ve never wavered on,” she said. “I always knew I was going to get my degree.” 

That commitment has carried the 33-year-old mother of five and military spouse through four colleges, three states and two countries.

Early struggles, new beginnings 

Chelsae’s journey started at Murray State University, where she planned to rush Sigma Sigma Sigma. But the night before the initiation, she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. After a short break, she returned to school at Indiana University Southeast, where a year later, she learned she was expecting her second child with her husband, a U.S. Army soldier. 

As her family grew, Chelsae’s education took a backseat. She found solace in knitting and reading, calmed her anxiety and allowed her to continue learning while balancing her roles as a mother and military spouse. 

As her husband’s military career progressed, she attended classes sporadically. All while moving from Kentucky to Alaska and then to Kentucky and Colorado.  

“Life had turns. It’s been a wild journey, to say the least,” she recalled while looping yarn around her knitting needles. 

Chelsae was determined to complete her degree when the military stationed her family for the second time at Fort Campbell. Upon visiting Austin Peay State University, she fell in love with the campus. 

“I’ve been in love ever since,” she said.

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Chelsae Thompson accepts the Hattie Walker Wilhoite Award

Finding support at APSU 

At Austin Peay, Chelsae found an empathetic and supportive environment. 

“The transition to Austin Peay was actually really smooth,” she said. “I am a mom of five, and because of my husband’s military service, I was afraid that no one would understand. Austin Peay is probably the most empathetic campus I’ve been on. My teachers never lower their standards but provide understanding.” 

Chelsae’s dedication to her studies and ability to balance multiple roles are clear in her campus leadership. Chelsae has served as a Transfer Student Leader with the Adult, Nontraditional, Transfer Student Center, hosted Adult Cafe, and was the finance intern for Student Life Engagement and the ANTS Center. During this time, she created financial literacy programs for students. Currently, Chelsae serves as vice president of the Larry W. Carroll Govs Fund in the College of Business, is president of the Tau Sigma National Honor Society, and will travel to Argentina to study abroad this summer. 

“I’ve been able to do everything I ever wanted to do in college, and I’m super grateful for that,” she said. Studying abroad was the only thing that I hadn’t marked off. I’ve always wanted to travel, and I haven’t traveled in 16 years.”

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Chelsae Thompson, seated, second from right, and the Gov Fund members.

Balancing roles, managing mental health 

Despite frequent moves and the challenges of raising a large family, Chelsae remained committed to her education. Her knitting provides a creative outlet while assisting in managing her anxiety and ADHD. 

“I’ve always been very vocal with my professors about my mental health,” she said. “They’ve been really supportive, meeting me where I’m at, and as a result, I do my best to go above and beyond because they’ve been understanding.” 

That includes allowing Chelsae to knit in class while fully engaged with the professors. 

“The repetitive motion helps me focus and manage my anxiety,” she said. “And as a result, I learn and retain information better.”  

Balancing motherhood, studying and being a military spouse requires meticulous time management and unwavering family support. 

“I set a schedule and stick to it,” she said. “I do my best to communicate with my kids what’s going on, and we work together to accommodate their needs as well as mine. And to be frank, my husband is incredible and always willing to take over when I need to focus.” 

Leadership, recognition 

As she nears completion of her undergraduate degree, Chelsae aims for an MBA from APSU. She later plans to pursue a doctorate and teach on a college campus. 

“My dream has always been to be a college professor or to work on college campuses,” she shared. “I love learning and the versatility that being a professor allows. I get to follow my passion wherever it leads.” 

Chelsae’s leadership style, shaped by her experiences as a mother, is characterized by transparency, empathy and playfulness. 

“I want to be the kind of leader who listens and understands,” she said. “Inclusivity is important to me. I want everyone to feel heard.” 

Her advice to other nontraditional students is simple but powerful: “Don’t be afraid to engage. Life happens, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pursue your dreams. The journey might be longer, but it’s worth it.” 

She has put that advice to work. 

Chelsae is a cornerstone of the Adult, Nontraditional, and Transfer Student (ANTS) Center at Austin Peay. She works as a student assistant and transfer student leader to provide guidance and support to fellow nontraditional students. Her favorite spot on campus is the ANTS Center, a haven for students like her. 

In February, Student Life and Engagement awarded her Student Leader of the Month. Just last month, she was also recognized as Outstanding Non-traditional Student of the Year during the annual Student Organization and Leader Awards and received the Hattie Walker Wilhoite Award, named after the first African American female APSU graduate. The award acknowledges her contributions and leadership and was presented by the Wilbur N. Daniel African American Cultural Center.  


Chelsae has pursued several majors, starting with liberal arts and shifting to teaching, then chemistry, general studies, accounting, and finance—a field she describes as her “accidental passion.” 

“It sounds cocky, but I’m good at all the things because I just like to learn,” Chelsae said with a laugh. “Finance allows me to do anything and everything I want.” 

She is set to graduate with a bachelor’s in business administration in finance in December. 

After graduating in December, Chelsae’s main goal is to pursue her MBA at Austin Peay and dedicate a year solely to her MBA coursework. 

Her long-term goal is to pursue a doctorate and become a college professor. She plans to take a break after her MBA to work and gain experience in finance, specifically in financial planning and wealth management. 

“I’ve always been in love with learning,” she said. “And APSU has given me the opportunity to pursue my passion and make a difference.” 

As Chelsae’s future unfolds, she will continue to inspire, lead and achieve, just as she did with her blanket — stitch by stitch, each thread a testament to her unwavering spirit and determination.


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