By Joe Garvey

Working on a degree under COVID-19 restrictions has been difficult for many students. It's been even more stressful for Alexis Wilkerson.

Wilkerson, who will receive her Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision from Old Dominion University's Darden College of Education and Professional Studies in December, has dealt with stage 4 kidney failure, which worsened during the pandemic.

"How scary, right?" she said. "The first few months I went nowhere! I was not sure that if I went out, I would survive."

Wilkerson has Uromodulin Kidney Disease (UKD), a rare inherited condition that causes slow worsening of renal function and is accompanied by gout. About 500 families worldwide have been identified with this disease, she said, adding that her kidney function is below 20%. She was diagnosed when she was 16.

Wilkerson, who graduated from Courtland High School in 2010, enrolled at ODU as a freshman. But she left after a year, attended community college and received her bachelor's degree from Chowan University. She earned her master's from East Carolina University.

"It is interesting that I was a freshman at ODU and am finishing with a terminal degree at ODU," she said.

She applied to ODU with some hesitation after graduating from ECU in 2017 because she was concerned she'd need a kidney transplant before completing the program.

Adding to her stress - which doctors said she needed to reduce - were the deaths of a number of people she was close to over the past several months.

"Having a kidney condition worsening amid the racial unrest, the pandemic and the personal loss of family members and friends was and still is mentally draining at times," she said. "I vividly remember receiving a call regarding the death of someone I knew every week for four weeks."

She said ODU has been supportive throughout. She checked in with the Office of Educational Accessibility after being accepted into the graduate program. She kept regular nephrology appointments and had bloodwork done on a monthly to tri-monthly basis, monitored her blood pressure and maintained a low-protein diet. But she initially didn't inform her professors of her condition.

"However, during spring 2020 I had a scare during which I thought I would need a kidney earlier than expected," she said.

She said Counseling and Human Services Department Chair Edward Neukrug and Professor and Eminent Scholar Nina Brown, who was Wilkerson's dissertation chair, worked with her to develop an action plan in case she received a transplant before graduating.

"Alexis is a dedicated and diligent student who always did her best at whatever the task was. She was very determined to complete the doctorate and did so in spite of her condition and other concerns," Brown said. "She will make a positive and unique contribution to the discipline and to her clients. I applaud and commend her performance and enjoyed working with her."

Wilkerson also cited the support of Associate Professor Gulsah Kemer.

"There has never been a time when I met with her and she did not check in on my health and how I was managing school," Wilkerson said. "She always assured me that the department's faculty and staff would be willing to assist me in any way because they all knew I wanted to complete this program no matter what it took."

Kemer, the doctoral program director, said Wilkerson will be an asset to any future employer.

"Alexis has been a wonderful student and colleague in her journey in our doctoral program," Kemer said. "From the beginning of her studies, she has always been thoughtful, reflective and diligent, all of which I admire and idealize in a doctoral level professional. In the face of so many challenges, Alexis has persevered and finished her program not only successfully but also earlier than scheduled."

Wilkerson learned she would need a transplant on Oct. 6; the procedure will be performed by the end of December. She successfully defended her dissertation on Nov. 9.

"When I submitted my application, I did so by faith, praying that I would not need a kidney before finishing the program," she said, "and my prayer was answered."

During the tough times, Wilkerson said she often thought of her first research paper: "A Path of Perseverance: A Qualitative Heuristic Study of Black, First-Generation College Students." She is a first-generation college graduate whose sister also graduated from ODU.

"My motto has always been do not give up, keep working and make adjustments as needed," she said. "I plan to continue my research on first-generation college students, adding the layer of managing physical health with chronic diseases."

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