When Melissa Leeolou, PCS ’16, gave the graduation speech at the diploma ceremony for Fordham’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies (PCS) this past Saturday, she congratulated her classmates for “making it.”
It was a big moment for the graduates—whose parents, spouses, and children cheered them on loudly in the McGinley Center. A college degree is an accomplishment anyone should be proud of, but for the adult and nontraditional students at PCS, the road to graduation is often more complex.
“For most of us,” said Leeolou, 24, “making it to this day may well have demanded a bit more creativity or resourcefulness than it did for those who had a more traditional student experience.” She liked the sound of the word “nontraditional,” she said from the podium, joking that it has a nice “Steve Jobs” ring to it.
But all “nontraditional” really means, she said, “is that we found ways to make success possible regardless of our circumstances.”
That was certainly the case for Leeolou. A ballerina from Long Island, she began dancing in Manhattan when she was 10. She trained and performed in some of the best institutes and companies in the world, from Moscow to New York City. In 2009, she enrolled part time at PCS while she continued to dance.
But soon after, injury struck. Leeolou had been dancing on a bad stress fracture when she broke an ankle, tore a tendon, and dislocated bones. After several surgeries and painful rehabilitation, she decided to focus completely on her education and started a full-time schedule at Fordham. She calls her diverse group of classmates a “highlight” of her education.
“Being in school with other adults and people from all walks of life really helped me transition during a very difficult time,” said Leeolou, who graduated summa cum laude. She completed a double major in psychology and theology and a minor in bioethics, all while continuing to make public appearances as an advocate for those suffering from severe psoriasis, a painful autoimmune disease she’s had since birth.
“The flexibility of my schedule through PCS permitted me to attend conferences and work,” she said.
Leeolou had to manage the disease—which attacks the skin and joints—throughout her dancing career. There were times when psoriasis covered 80 percent of her body. Sometimes she’d have to apply hot compresses and ointments each morning, just so her skin would be supple enough to move. Patients living with the condition often have trouble getting insurance companies to pay for their medication, so Leeolou advocates for better patient access to the drugs they need. She’s spoken at national and international conferences, and appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and other TV programs.
Discovering a Passion for Medicine
“For me [the bioethics minor] was the intersection of patient advocacy work that I’ve been doing and medicine. It was fabulous,” she said. The program introduces students to critical moral questions related to individual, public, and global health, and focuses on healthcare decision-making and health policy.
Leeolou said she’s passionate about pursuing a career in the field because it will allow her “to recognize the sick and disabled as individuals, representative of courage and deserving of dignity,” and to “harness the memory of my painful symptoms and use them as tools of empathy.” She’s been accepted to two graduate programs in medical ethics for the fall—at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. She hopes to eventually go to medical school.
Charles Camosy, PhD, associate professor of theology, taught Leeolou in two bioethics courses. He praised her determination.
“I’m not sure I’ve encountered a student with her combination of raw brain power, other-centered heart, and fierce will,” he said. “Melissa simply won’t let anything stand in the way of her helping the vulnerable and the sick.”
Leeolou also made a splash in the psychology department, where she received the inaugural Anne Leicht Service Award, named for a former administrator in the department who died in 2011.
Harold Takooshian, PhD, professor of psychology at Fordham, nominated Leeolou for the award. He said she stood out as a star in his classes, writing a paper on homicide survivors that he called “by far the best undergraduate report I have seen in 40 years.”
A career in medicine seems like a perfect fit for her, Takooshian said. “There’s some passion in her that I can see is going to make her an excellent physician.”
Talent and Dreams Intersect
Reflecting on her college career in her graduation speech, Leeolou said she was grateful that Fordham allowed her to excel at the things she was most passionate about.
“Fordham understands that talents come in many forms, and that the most valuable education is one that connects with individual interests of the students, where each student discovers not only a wealth of knowledge but also where their talents and dreams intersect.”
To her fellow graduates, she said, “I hope that that life surprises us. I hope it transforms us.”