Single mother overcomes learning disabilities to earn bachelor’s in biotechnology

Rising Up at KUEC: In this Q&A series, outstanding 2021 KU graduates share how the KU Edwards Campus has helped them start, advance or change their career. Meet Suzie Zell.

Suzie Zell (center) poses at the KU Edwards Campus

Biotechnology is more than a career path for this 2021 graduate. The biotech lab is 45-year-old Suzie Zell’s “happy place,” and she could be found on campus nearly every day during her time as a student.

This May, Zell graduated with a bachelor’s of applied science in biotechnology, and although this isn’t her first bachelor’s degree, the journey to earning it was distinctly different from her past academic experiences. Zell’s lifelong struggles with learning disabilities resulted in a rocky relationship with school, but since attending KUEC, she’s rediscovered her confidence and love of learning.

“My professors understood my learning issues and helped me figure out how I learn,” Zell said. “The extra time they put into helping me understand things was way above and beyond anything I have ever experienced.”

Zell hopes her 13-year-old daughter, Claire, will see and absorb her dedication to school and achieving her goals.

“My daughter is my joy, and everything I do, I do for her,” Zell said. “I want her to know that she can be whatever she wants when she grows up and that it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice.” 

Zell’s other student activities include involvement in Women in STEM and a position as transfer ambassador. She wants to inspire others to follow their passions, no matter their age.

Q: What is a typical day in your life like? 

A: COVID really shifted my day-to-day life. I am a morning person, and I usually get up and make sure my daughter, Claire, makes it on her bus. Then I head to KUEC to work in the lab. I travel between work, home and class. I study from the time I get up until 10 at night.  The only day I was not on campus is Sunday, only because the campus had been closed on Sundays since COVID, but pre-COVID, I was there seven days a week. I do enjoy when I get to eat dinner with my family or spend time with my friends, but school is one of my highest priorities, so a “typical day” revolved around school.

Q: What makes you the happiest? 

A: I have always said the biotech lab is my happy place. When the campus closed the previous spring, I was crushed. I was grateful to be back in my happy place, and I was there at least 30 hours a week.

Outside of school, my daughter is my joy, and everything I do, I do for her. She is a competitive swimmer on a local team, but I haven’t seen her swim in a year due to COVID. Watching her grow up is the most fantastic gift.

Q: What motivates you? 

A: My daughter is my motivation. I have several learning disabilities, and I grew up hating school. I don’t want my kid ever to feel that way. I want her to know that she can be whatever she wants when she grows up and that it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. 

Q: Why did you choose KU and the Edwards Campus? 

A: I chose KUEC because I already had a college degree, and it’s a transfer college, but mostly because most of the students are “nontraditional” students like me. I never felt out of place or “too old.” The diversity is why I chose KUEC, or why it chose me.

Q: How did KUEC meet your personal and/or academic needs? 

A: This is where KUEC exceeded my expectations the most. As far as my educational needs, my professors understood my learning issues and helped me figure out how I learn. They really want you to succeed. By this, I mean beyond my given accommodations for my learning disabilities, the extra time they put into helping me understand things was way above and beyond anything I have ever experienced in any educational system since elementary school.  Dr. Logan, Dr. Treml and Dr. Mattingly have raised the bar on what college professors should be and what they should strive to be. I am nothing but grateful for everything they have taught me in the lab and how to be a professional in the workplace. 

Q: How has your KU degree prepared you for the future?

A: They have taught me all I need to know. We had many opportunities to network with industry people, practice interviewing and attend resume workshops. They taught us how to be professional in the workplace and we practiced that within our cohort. All the theory has been introduced and applied to different labs and scenarios. It was just up to us to seize the opportunities presented to us.

Q: What was the most difficult part of earning your college degree, and how did you overcome it? 

A: The most challenging part was believing that I could do this. I had no confidence in my academic abilities. There is this quote by Albert Einstein, ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’ I guess I was a fish trying to climb a tree my whole life. When I found KUEC and the biotechnology program, I gained confidence from my peers and my professors. Still, most of all, I gained confidence in myself simply by finding the place I belonged and where I wasn’t failing at everything I was trying to do. I began to succeed and get good grades. My GPA went from a 1.7 to a 3.65. I just needed people to believe in me. I no longer think I’m stupid. I actually think I am pretty good at this science stuff, and more importantly, I love it.

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment? 

A: I am most proud of my senior capstone project. At first, I thought my project was too easy.  Once I started working on it, I discovered that it was not at all easy. My proudest moments are when the results turn out exactly how I predicted they would. It makes me incredibly proud when I can communicate effectively with my professors and peers.

Q: What is your favorite memory of your time at KUEC? 

A: I have so many great memories from my time at KUEC. My favorite memories are all from working with my cohort in the lab. When the lab is full of people ‘doing science’ and it’s loud, that makes me happy. The junior cohort is full of life and energy, and they bring a lot of fun, new experiences to the lab. 

Q: What are your long-term career goals, and how do you plan to achieve them? 

A: My first goal is to find a job in the industry. I want to find a company that aligns with my goals and has opportunities to move up in my career. I plan to do a lot of research on local companies and start applying; it seems relatively simple, but I am reasonably sure this will not be easy. I think due to my dedication to finding the right job and the right fit with a company, I will achieve this because finding a job will be my job after I graduate. I’d eventually like to continue my education if the opportunity presents itself. KUEC has given me all the tools I need to achieve whatever I want.

Q: What advice would you give others who are thinking of earning a degree, whether a first-time bachelor’s, a second bachelor’s, or a master’s? 

A: Please do it. It is never too late, you're never too old or too young, and it is affordable. My first degree was not the right choice for me and was a waste, but it led me to know that this degree was exactly what I needed. Anyone can do it, especially at KUEC.

Learn more about the Bachelor of Applied Science in Biotechnology at KU Edwards Campus.

The Bachelor of Applied Science in Biotechnology degree program is supported by the Johnson County Education Research Triangle.

Learn more about the Biotechnology program

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