When Melissa Watkins decided to leave the University of Arizona in 2010, she hadn’t yet finished her degree.
“I did everything I could to try to be a successful student,” Watkins said. “But it got to a point where I said, ‘I can't keep fighting. This isn't the right time in my life.’”
The fight she refers to was a near-fatal automobile accident that left her with a severe brain injury before starting school in 2007. Giving up, however, was not an option; instead, she struck out across the choppy waters of entrepreneurship, starting Steps Dance and Fitness Studio in Tucson, Arizona. She built the entire concept herself, from branding to financing, and ran the studio for six years.
In 2016, Watkins tired of being a jack of all trades and decided to close the studio, re-enter the workforce and master a single field. Many of the jobs she applied for, however, didn’t see her years of business ownership as suitable experience.
“No matter how well-built your resume is, a lot of corporate jobs only care that you don't have a degree,” she said. “That was frustrating but also the exact inspiration I needed to go back to school.”
Uncertain how to make that happen, Watkins heeded advice from a studio client who suggested she go back to the UA. This choice would lead her to academic adviser Amanda Armendariz.
According to Watkins, Armendariz not only inspired her to return to school by highlighting Arizona Online’s degree programs and resources, but also worked hard to keep her and other online students connected to the university and its community. Now, as Watkins nears a graduation she never thought would happen, she refers to Armendariz as her “guardian angel.”
“My adviser told me about the Second Start program,” she said. “It gave me kind of a clean slate in terms of GPA … when I graduate at the end of the summer, I'll be at about a 3.6 GPA, so a huge swing in the opposite direction.”
Second Start has helped hundreds of UA students return and finish their degrees. Joshua Steele, director of Arizona Online, says the program exemplifies the school’s welcoming spirit.
“The university recognizes sometimes students stumble the first time around,” Steele said. “With Second Start, if you’ve been away from school for three or more years and want to give it another shot, simply come back, complete 12 units successfully, and your GPA starts over.”
For Watkins, improving her GPA opened up a wealth of additional opportunities, including the chance to enroll in graduate school if she chooses. It also made her eligible for one of several prestigious UA Legislative Internships offered to exceptional students on all campuses, online or otherwise. All that remained was acquiring a letter of recommendation, which her adviser was happy to write.
"I knew this challenging and rewarding experience would be perfect for Melissa,” Armendariz said. “It’s important that our students walk away with firsthand experiences they can apply when they enter the workforce. We do all that we can to facilitate these opportunities.”
Having recently developed an interest in politics, Watkins jumped at the chance.
“I immediately applied for it,” she said. “And two months later, I found out I got it. So, I was chosen specifically for the Governor's Office. Throughout the whole legislative session, I got to be up here [in Phoenix], watching everything that happens in Arizona politics.”
While completing her internship in Phoenix – which involved tracking all 1,166 bills moving through the legislative process, among other duties – Watkins received a job offer from the Arizona Republican Party. The Governor’s Office itself recommended her for the position.
She followed her passion, packing up and moving from Tucson, her lifelong home, to the state capitol. She’s now certain that attending class online made it possible to move across the state, start a new career and keep up with her studies.
“I work a lot of hours … it’s a pretty intense job,” she said about her new role as regional field director. “It’s nice being an online student because I can have a lunch hour where I'm able to get a couple of assignments done, or get up early and do a test and then go to work, and it fits in with my life.”
Watkins is set to graduate later this year, after one more class. But she has a final piece of advice for others in situations like the one she faced two years ago: It’s never too late to take your second start. She took hers and discovered a career she had no idea she’d love so much.
“I never in a million years would’ve imagined a career in politics, but after this internship I can't imagine not having a career in politics,” she said with a smile. “My parents laughed that I was going to want to run for governor next.”