Woods Alumni Puts ‘Soul’ Into New Career
By: Katie Shane
At 63 years old, Cindy Ely never thought she would have a publicist.
But then again, she never thought she would be a published author either.
“I think the word is surreal,” Ely says. “I’m working with a publicist and talking about book signings. I just can’t believe it.”
After nearly three decades of working in education, it’s hard for Ely to believe this May will mark the release of her first official work as a professional writer. The Greenwood, Ind., native will have an essay included in the newest edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive.
Ely’s piece in the book, called “Boost to My Confidence,” is based on another surreal experience, achieving her lifelong goal of obtaining her college degree. The wife, mother of four and grandmother of 12 began college after graduating high school in 1969 but dropped out when she got married and started her family. Ely made a promise to herself and her late father that she would go back eventually. It took nearly four decades, but in 2007, Ely graduated with honors from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC).
Far from a traditional college student, Ely says going back to school was intimidating. Determined to accomplish her goal, she searched for a program that would allow her to juggle a full-time job and family and be an easy transition for someone that hadn’t taken a traditional college course since her early 20s. Ely’s husband Howard suggested Woods Online offered by Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. The distance learning format works with students to enhance their career or begin an entirely new career.
“After I started on the path, I made goals for myself,” Ely explains. “I would work all day and come home to study. There were some things that I had to sacrifice to get my degree but my family was all for it; they wanted it for me as bad as I wanted it for me. I was not just getting a degree; I wanted to do well when I was doing it.”
Ely’s determination to get her degree was not always that strong. She almost never enrolled, but found the confidence after a chance meeting with a little lady at an Indianapolis conference.
Ely, a former Title I tutor and classroom assistant for Perry Township Schools, was invited by her principal to an education conference and luncheon. The keynote speaker was Grace Corrigan. Corrigan is the mother of former teacher and Challenger Space Shuttle crew member Christa Corrigan McAuliffe. McAuliffe was one of seven crew members killed in the Challenger explosion in 1986. Ely was anxious to hear Corrigan speak, so she excused herself for a quick bathroom break before the program began. Walking back to the main ballroom, Ely noticed a woman standing alone in a side room.
“The door was open… I am an outgoing person and inquisitive, so I went in and asked if she was okay or if she needed anything. We started talking and before I knew it we had talked for half an hour,” Ely explains. “While we talked she convinced me that I needed to go back to college… When I went back to the convention I turned to my principal and I told her, ‘I think I am going to go back to college.’ It was then they introduced Grace Corrigan. I looked up and saw that the woman on the stage was the same woman I was talking to; she was Grace Corrigan! I started crying.”
Ely dried her tears, bought Corrigan’s book and decided that day to enroll in Woods Online.
Her confidence after the conference continued, until she began to have second thoughts on the rainy day of her orientation.
“I was getting more and more nervous. I am on the elevator, and I’m thinking, I have four kids, grandkids, I’m working full-time, this is not something I want to do,” she says.
Before she had the chance to fully give in to her fear the elevator doors opened, bringing Ely face to face with the late Mary Margaret Bowels, then associate director of Woods Online.
“She took one look at me and said, ‘You have a look on your face; I have to say, you are going to do this and you are going to be fine’… I think if she hadn’t been there I would have gone back on the elevator and went home.”
That was just the first of many supportive moments Ely received from The Woods faculty and staff. Embracing the College, Ely reached out to faculty for everything from advice on class schedules to declaring her major. Already working in education, Ely wanted to challenge herself and chose a major different from her current career.
“(My advisor) said, ‘Why don’t you go for professional writing?’ and I said, ‘Can you do that?’”
Not only did Ely give writing “the old college try” as she says, but she graduated in 2007 with honors.
“Everybody was always so supportive,” she says of The Woods faculty and staff. “Every time I went to register for classes they always knew who I was. It wasn’t like I was this disconnected older woman taking classes; they made me feel like I was living on campus, even though I wasn’t, so that kept me coming back. Everyone was so warm and friendly, and I didn’t feel like a stranger.”
After graduation Ely put her new skills and new confidence to good use, beginning a children’s book and writing numerous essays she then submitted to Chicken Soup for the Soul. She initially found being a writer was easier said than done.
“I always loved those books, so I thought that was something I could do,” she says of the popular book series. “I sent a few things in, but never heard back.”
Continuing to submit works, Ely finally heard from publishers that one of her essays was being considered. One afternoon an email from Chicken Soup popped up in her email inbox.
“I was so nervous. I knew it was it; this is sink or swim. I clicked on it and I thought I can’t read it. I felt so confident that it would be another rejection,” she says. “I read the first line, ‘Dear Cindy’ and the first word in the letter after that was ‘congratulations,’ I didn’t need to read any more of it.”
Ely’s essay chronicles her meetings with Grace Corrigan and Mary Margaret Bowels and her journey to earn her degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. With such a close connection to SMWC, some of the first people Ely contacted after learning about Chicken Soup were her former professors and SMWC President Dottie King, Ph.D.
“I reached out to Dottie and my professors, through email, they are a huge part of it,” she says of her success. “They all got right back to me and were so happy for me.”
Now with even more confidence than before Ely is continuing to work on her children’s book and numerous other essays for Chicken Soup. She attributes much of her newfound success to her time at The Woods, not only as material to put into her work, but for giving her the confidence to follow her dreams. Ely says without SMWC she may have never realized her true potential.
“I don’t think I probably would have,” she says. “Even though I have had people say that I am pretty good at writing, I’m not sure if I would have completed my degree or if I would have taken the chance. None of this would have happened without Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.”