Student overcomes trauma and COVID-19 to earn her first degree

Published by Rachel Arceo on

Ayleen Pfeiffer is described by Assistant Professor of Speech Alyssa Harter: “Ayleen stood out immediately in Public Speaking class because of her passion and conviction in standing up for what is right. She had multiple mic drop moments when speaking because she let her passion lead her speech performances. It was great to see her grow and reach her full potential, given the various barriers and adversities she faces both in and out of the classroom.”
Rachel Arceo / The Mainstream

A few inches under five feet tall, Ayleen Pfeiffer is a nearly 30-year-old who is often mistaken for a high school student both on and off campus. Frequently silent and noticeably petite, it could be easy for some to underestimate the strength and perseverance that she has shown through her often difficult college journey.

Although Pfeiffer will walk the UCC graduation line this June, earning the AAOT degree this summer that she began in 2015, she often questioned whether she would be able to do it.

“I am still shocked that I am graduating,” says Pfeiffer with wide eyes, a small smile and a shake of her head.

Originally, Pfeiffer began UCC as a nursing student in the 2015/2016 school year, taking many of the prerequisites required for a nursing degree. Pfeiffer then took time off from school, always hoping to come back, but never found the right moment.

“Every time I tried to come back to school, it was as if something were going on in life that I just continued to say ‘ok, I need to put it off’ or ‘I need to be with my family’ because there were different tragedies happening,” Pfeiffer says.

Tragedy takes a toll

Bad things can happen to good people. 

Before her return to UCC, in early June of 2020, Pfeiffer received a call that changed her life. A tragic incident of domestic violence sent her sister to the hospital fighting for her life with her brother-in-law dead from self-inflicted wounds.

Her sister survived.

This is difficult for Pfeiffer to share. She was private to begin with, but the news that her brother-in-law had shot her sister before shooting himself blind-sided her, and after this tragedy, she became particularly insular. 

“I get nervous talking about it.  I never wanted attention to it because the event that happened involved my sister and her husband,” Pfeiffer says.

She remembers the moment the family was informed of the tragedy. “It was a shock to the whole family. We knew he was depressed; we knew they were having problems, but we didn’t know how far it had gone,” Pfeiffer says.

Ayleen Pfeiffer smiles as she searches through her mail to show the momentous University of Oregon acceptance.
Rachel Arceo / The Mainstream

Pfeiffer tried to explain the cognitive dissonance happening at the time. “It was hard; someone I loved, hurt someone I love,” Pfeiffer gravely says.

“Him and I were really close, we would help and talk to each other through hard times. So when this happened: total flip the script; I felt like I didn’t even know this person,” Pfeiffer says.

Pfeiffer recalls the mental health challenges her brother-in-law went through during the beginning of the pandemic. “That year had been bad.  Depression turned him to drugs and drugs turned him into a different person.

“After the event, as you can imagine, many people in the community knew about it, many people. So I didn’t even want to go to a grocery store or be out in public, because people who knew me as her sister would stop and ask about it,” Pfeiffer says.

Sometimes family trauma like Pfeiffer’s can become personal trauma.

Pfeiffer admits the event changed her, deepening trust issues and making her particularly protective of her family. To this day she still sits with her back to walls and is uncomfortable with crowds. But it also motivated her to help other people prevent tragedies like this. Her journey through her sister’s experienced violence led her to change her major from nursing to follow a path toward social work to help children through their trauma.

The return

After the event, Pfeiffer spent the bulk of her time with her family. Together they found some healing, taking it day by day.

Pfeiffer wasn’t sure she was ready for school again, but her best friend and former employer Amber Whipple, as well as her family, helped and encouraged her to try again. She did sign up for fall term 2021 but wasn’t yet fully decided if she would actually return.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, like a lot, and it became this thing about ‘what will I become in the future?’ because I was going down a rabbit hole, and I allowed my emotions to take over me,” Pfeiffer says.

“But then my family was like ‘you can do this; you can be the one to graduate.’ Now I’m in school, and I am working really, really hard,” Pfeiffer says. “I’m all in.”

This time back at school, Pfeiffer knew she wouldn’t be going the nursing path anymore. “I was drawn to psychology,” Pfeiffer says. “My brain went to this place; I want more information. I want to be that helpful person for someone, especially children.”

COVID-19 and pneumonia

After a successful fall term Pfeiffer hit another roadblock winter of 2022. “It was a looong winter term,” Pfeiffer said with a shake of the head.

During finals week of the 2021 fall term, Pfeiffer tested positive for COVID-19 which caused long term effects that can still be heard in her voice today. “After that my health was not right,” Pfeiffer says.

She began winter term still feeling the effects of COVID, then in February she was hospitalized for four days with pneumonia; she was intubated briefly when she first arrived. The National Center for Biotechnology Information has reported that the mortality rate for intubated COVID-19 patients is nearly 26%, so her situation was serious; however, Pfeiffer wanted to finish her degree on time.  

Ayleen Pfeiffer celebrates her school pride during the “Party Like a Hawkstar” celebration on week eight.
Rachel Arceo / The Mainstream

Having set the goal of earning her transfer degree by summer 2022, Pfeiffer was taking at least 14 credits every term. The winter term of her hospitalization included an anatomy class with associate professor of science, Joann Richards, which was particularly difficult for Pfeiffer to navigate with her health problems.

Richards continuously communicated and reached out to Pfeiffer, checking on her health and offering options for withdrawal or rescheduling. Pfeiffer now had a dilemma. Should she withdraw or postpone for the better grade she was likely to get with better health? Or should she continue on with this course to graduate on time and apply to the University of Oregon?

She chose to stay and earned a C.

“I’m proud I didn’t give up,” Pfeiffer says. “Maybe it’s not the best grade, but I worked for it; it’s the hardest class to catch up in.”

Opening up

Pfeiffer is understandably reluctant to share personal information, she did try recently and found a fragment of healing in the act. “I spoke about the event in my speech class, and it was the first time I ever spoke publicly about it,” Pfeiffer says.  

The speech assignment, Pfeiffer recalls, was explaining a topic they were passionate about; sharing personal stories was encouraged. “I am passionate about domestic violence. I’ve gone through it; I’ve seen my mother go through it and I’ve seen my sister go through it,” Pfeiffer says.

Pfeiffer takes a deep breath and then she says, “I finally opened up, and I shared the event with the classroom.” With a small smile, she recalls, “After that moment I felt really good, because it brings light to other people.”

“I was trying to gain the courage for myself to show my nephew, nieces and younger brothers to speak up; it might help them.  It felt really good to be able to do that,” Pfeiffer says.

Pfeiffer’s tone deepens as she recalls the hard lessons she shared with her speech class about speaking up. “If you feel like you need help, speak up because you or your family members can be harmed, and that’s what happened,” Pfeiffer says.

Spring renewal and graduation

Pfeiffer managed her way through illness and depression that winter and continued the path for graduation by summer term. In March she applied for the only university she was truly interested in, the University of Oregon.

In April, Pfeiffer received the email; she got in.

“There was confetti that popped out on my screen,” says Pfeiffer as she beams from the memory.  When Pfeiffer registered what she had just read in her acceptance email, she ran out of her room to share the news with her close family friends and housemates, the Whipples’.   

“I came out screaming with my arms up ‘I got in!’ Amber and I started jumping up and down with excitement,” Pfeiffer says. “Their kids were so confused because I had started crying, so Amber had to explain they were happy tears.”

With U of O on the horizon, Pfeiffer continued working diligently but nearly missed her chance to walk the UCC graduation line. “I wasn’t aware that you can walk the line if you still had a few summer credits to finish.”

Fortunately, Pfeiffer did manage to sign up for graduation.

“My mom, my brothers, Amber, Jason, Grandpa Whipple and their five little children are all going to be there,” Pfeiffer says with a smile. “It’s a big deal, I might cry a bit.”

 Pfeiffer is quiet as she reflects on all of her struggles to get through the first two years of college.  “I’m proud of myself for finding the courage to continue,” Pfeiffer says.

 If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence please call 1-800-799-7233 or visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence at

May was mental health awareness month; we urge anyone dealing with thoughts of self-harm please call:1-800-272-8255 or visit

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