If there is one thing Melissa Gillespie wanted to teach her children it is that they should never give up on their dreams.
Now the mum-of-three has proved just that - graduating with a bachelor's degree in nursing, 17 years after she started her studies.
When she first started her degree, Melissa was a new mum, and husband Quinton was an auxiliary mechanic in the US Navy in Washington. Over the next 17 years, she would go through three moves, two more children, and a long separation – but she was always determined to achieve her dream of becoming a nurse.
Anyone who has tried to study with small children knows how difficult it can be, but Melissa told Today she was determined.
Then the Navy moved Quinton to a new base in New York, and Melissa and their two small children followed. Then Melissa had her third baby. For the next four years, she wasn't able to work on her degree, with all her focus on parenting her three kids – two of whom were diagnosed with high-functioning autism.
"You just do what you have to do," said Melissa. "Taking that hiatus from school allowed me to get involved and give my kids the attention they needed at the time."
Quinton was then moved back to Washington, where Melissa started her degree again. She had to redo all of the prerequisite classes she had done because the credits she had accrued had lapsed, but she kept going.
"I ended up completing 218 credits for a 120-credit degree," she said.
When Quinton was moved yet again, this time to Virginia, the couple made the tough decision for Melissa and the children to stay behind so Melissa could continue her studies.
"My husband said, 'The Navy is not taking this away from you'," she said. "My hero lived on a ship for 19 months across the country from his family so that I could go to school."
During that time, Melissa studied and raised her children without her husband present. "He was home 12 days each of those two years," she said. "That was the hardest point."
But Melissa was buoyed by good friends who went "above and beyond" to support her.
First, Melissa finished her associate degree, which meant she could become a registered nurse. Her mother and children attended the ceremony but Quinton could not.
"It was so hard, and so hard on the kids. But I think that period of time showed them that it's not easy to reach your goals, but if you push forward to do what you have to do, you can," said Melissa.
The family was reunited in Virginia, where they now live together again. Melissa kept working towards her bachelor's degree, while also working as an operating theatre nurse.
Then, a few weeks ago, Melissa finally graduated with her Bachelor of Nursing from Southern New Hampshire University – and Quinton was able to attend, along with their three children, now aged 17, 14 and 11.
"I wasn't going to go without my husband," said Melissa. "He's missed too much over the past 18 years."
Melissa said this degree was important, not only to her, but also to show her children they can achieve their dreams.