MEM student who deferred graduate school to take care of sick mother set to graduate
Tears of joy streamed down Carlyse Wallace’s face when she learned she was accepted into Purdue’s Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program in November 2021.
“It was a dream come true for me,” she said.
Wallace always considered Purdue a top school for elite engineering students. But, as an undergraduate, a larger school wasn’t financially feasible. Instead, she opted for a smaller program at Midwestern State University in Texas, where she studied mechanical engineering.
Following her undergraduate degree, she obtained her Engineer-In-Training license. Then, after two years of professional industry experience, Wallace explored graduate programs. This time, however, she prioritized the benefits of attending a larger, well-known school, and Purdue was at the top of her list.
“I wanted to go to a big school, do a co-op and have curriculum flexibility. I found everything I was looking for at Purdue, especially the MEM program,” she said. “I told my mom that Purdue was the only choice I wanted.”
Wallace applied to and was accepted into MEM, a selective graduate program that only admits 50 students a year.
But a few months later, her family received devastating news that put her life on hold — including her graduate career.
Right school, wrong time
Around the same time that Wallace was accepted to Purdue, her mother, Zia Wallace, underwent a series of tests for an unknown illness. Months of scans, blood draws and biopsies later, her condition didn’t improve. By Christmastime, Carlyse Wallace was forced to make an impossible choice. “My mom said, 'I think it’s best if you try and defer your admittance because we need to figure out what’s wrong. I’d really like your support,'” Carlyse Wallace recalled. “I was heartbroken.”
By January, Zia's diagnosis was confirmed — breast cancer. She was immediately scheduled for surgery.
“When we got the results, I didn't have a moment to process, cry or feel sad. It was like a complete numbness,” Carlyse Wallace said. “I could see my mother was sad; I told myself I would be strong for her.”
Instead of going straight to graduate school as intended for Spring 2022, Wallace deferred her acceptance and remained in The Bahamas to be her mother’s primary caregiver with the help of her aunts.
Wallace found herself swimming through a current of complex feelings. Her mother was gravely ill and faced a difficult journey ahead. At the same time, “I had to sacrifice my school dream," she said.
For nearly a year, Wallace’s days were spent cleaning surgery wounds and helping her mother carry out menial tasks like buttoning a shirt. As spring faded into summer, plans to attend Purdue waned in Wallace’s mind. Zia noticed, too. Finally, as summer came to a close, Zia couldn't allow it anymore. She urged Wallace to begin a new journey at Purdue.
“She told me, 'My wish is for you is to get your master’s degree. I only want this for you. Don’t put it off’,” Carlyse Wallace said.
However, it wasn’t so simple. Wallace wanted to be with her mother. The thought of going to school 1,000 miles away was … complicated.
“I felt pressure to care for my mother and to go to school knowing she had to do chemo while I was away,” she said. Leaving her mother was only part of the difficulties she faced. Financially, Wallace wasn’t sure if she could afford school supplies, clothes or furniture for an apartment.
Wallace, her family and the MEM admissions team created a plan to start at Purdue in August 2022. Her family rallied around her. Her aunts took over Wallace’s role as caregiver, and Wallace set up an Amazon wishlist, hoping a few family members and friends could take the edge off school expenses.
“My family and friends really showed up for me,” Carlyse Wallace said.
In April, just months after her mother’s diagnosis, Wallace received an email from Eric VandeVoorde, senior director of professional engineering master's programs at Purdue, explaining that she received a $10,000 tuition scholarship as a result of her professional and academic accomplishments. She recalled the happy moment as much more than icing on the cake: “It was candles and fireworks,” she said.
Healing is a journey, not a destination
Finally, in August 2022, Wallace arrived in West Lafayette. The first month of life as a graduate student flew by. But as her studies began to intensify, a nauseating guilt welled up. She wondered if she should be at Purdue at all.
“I’m living this dream, but my mom is really sick. I wanted to go home,” she said. “I didn’t want to do schoolwork; nothing was sticking in my brain.”
Friends and family encouraged her to persist, reminding her it was only two years. Still, Wallace wasn’t so sure. Eventually, she contacted a therapist at Purdue who helped her understand her diminishing ambitions.
“I didn’t have the chance to grieve my mom’s illness,” Wallace said.
She hadn’t cried once since her mother’s diagnosis.
“It was only until I was away from my mom and school work began that I could navigate what I was going through,” Wallace said.
Regular prayers, exercise and therapy helped, but something her cousin said stuck with Wallace: “If you’re going through hell, why would you want to stop there?”
“That dawned on me, like, the world is upside down and feels like nothing is going right. Are you just going to stop?” Wallace said. “I had to keep going.”
Three months after beginning the master’s program, Wallace applied for and was offered a competitive seven-month Co-op position as manufacturing operations program manager with Amazon Robotics in Boston. She had always aspired to work for a Fortune 500 company, so earning a spot at Amazon, ranked second on the prestigious list, was "a cherished milestone," Wallace said.
Your parachute is open
Now, Wallace is preparing for family and friends to visit in December to celebrate her graduation. Her mother will be there, too.
“She’s very pumped,” Wallace said.
Above all, Zia is endlessly proud.
“She says, 'Carlyse, your parachute is open. You are doing so much with your life and are not afraid to be alone in pursuit of what you want. Don’t limit yourself because you are going places.’”