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May 7, 2018

'It's Important to Know You're Not Alone': A Star Student's Success Through Struggle



Elizabeth Konecny smiles for a photo.

Elizabeth Konecny grew up believing that others come first and it was her responsibility to help those in need.

Once she finally allowed herself to receive the same kind of support, she realized how much she needed it—and how many people truly care about her.

In May, Konecny will address her graduating classmates in the College of Business as a commencement speaker. A business information systems major and the president of the Chico State SAP Club, she has built a reputation among her peers and instructors for her tenacity and perseverance in a leadership role.

She has endured repeated personal struggles to get here. One of her greatest challenges was not doing it alone.

Her father, John, had been in failing health since her going-away party for Chico, the day she learned he had stage-four colon cancer. He had two baseball-sized tumors removed, but it had spread to his lungs and liver. A cycle of treatment and surgery extended his life, but by last fall, he was back in the hospital. By January, the only answer left for John was hospice. Elizabeth was the last person he talked to on the phone, telling her he loved her, before he died on March 25.

“Instead of holding it in, I decided to tell people what was going on with me, which felt like a big step mentally,” she says. “All this time at Chico, I didn’t realize how much support I’ve had from the people here and how much of a family Chico State is. I’ve gotten emails from instructors I don’t even have class with. Students I thought were just acquaintances are checking in with me to see if I’m OK.

“It’s so important to know you’re not alone,” Konecny continues. “I have more support from Chico, from the College of Business network, than I could have ever imagined.”

A tragedy of that magnitude, she readily admits, would have overwhelmed her in the past. But part of her personal growth at Chico State has been opening up to others and accepting support—a skill she has had to develop over time.

At 7 years old, Konecny was diagnosed with early onset depression after she suffered abuse from babysitters as a child. Doctors told her mother the severity of her thoughts and symptoms was consistent with that of an adult, and Konecny was in counseling for her depression until she was 17.

Meanwhile, the Great Recession hit the Konecnys hard, and her family lost their house. She still misses her baby blanket, blue with teddy bears holding balloons, which was among her most valued items left behind when she and her family threw their lives into boxes and hurried out of their Corona home. The rapid turnaround immobilized Konecny.

“I went downhill fast. Months went by that I felt like I just couldn’t move,” Konecny says. “Depression doesn’t always make you ‘sad’ or ‘low.’ For me, it’s numbness. It feels like you’re drowning and you know you’re sinking but you don’t even want to try to swim.”

Her family continued to fragment. John, a Vietnam War veteran with health issues, moved to be with family in South Carolina. Konecny’s mother’s job already required semi-permanent travel, so every few years, she moved to a different part of the country: to Kansas, to Nevada, to Michigan, to Maryland.

Konecny stayed in Southern California to live with an aunt in Fullerton, certain she’d continue her education by starting community college there. But she couldn’t overcome the family turbulence.

“My aunt thought going to college would help get me out of my depression,” Konecny says. “I didn’t even last half the semester. By April I was a college dropout.”

A change of scenery was her next attempt to move forward. She moved to Michigan a year later to be with her mother, Denise, who also suffers from depression.

“My mom and my aunt kind of represent two really important emotional anchors for me,” Konecny said. “With my mom, we have so much in common—even with the depression—that it’s so easy for her to sympathize with me. We can take care of each other.”

That winter, Denise slipped on ice outside the house and broke her femur. She underwent emergency surgery and doctors later diagnosed her with osteoporosis and failing eyesight. For months, Konecny cared for her mother full-time, putting family before herself as she always had.

But she still needed help herself. Before long, Konecny’s older sister came to Michigan to take over their mother’s care so she could go back to school.

Her aunt offered Konecny a deal: rent-free living as long as she was going to class, and she spent the next two years back at Fullerton College. Having gained momentum from setting her educational aspirations, Konecny still occasionally drifted into bouts of depression, but that tough-love relationship kept her from stagnating again.

Elizabeth Konecny works on a computer in the Glenn Hall Computer lab.
Konecny has overcome a challenging start to her college career, managing depression and a turbulent childhood, to become a star student in the business information systems program.

“My aunt is my rock,” she said. “It’s always her that will sit down with me and have that honest conversation that gets me moving forward again.”

Her hometown institution, Cal State Fullerton, seemed the obvious option for a transfer to a four-year university, but her aunt—familiar with nearly every CSU as one of the system’s financial aid support officers—had a hunch she might enjoy a tour of Chico State. It was love at first sight. She didn’t apply anywhere else, and it turned out to be an ideal spot to nurture both her education and her well-being.

Konecny had always been interested in computer information systems, and she made a quick impression on her business information systems instructors with relentless dedication to academia and leadership qualities that seem to come naturally.

“It didn’t take long to identify that she’d be a top student. She was definitely here to learn and soak in as much as she could,” said assistant professor Christine Witt, who teaches the program’s introductory course. “It’s been really amazing to watch her confidence grow while she’s been here.”

Witt still uses work from Konecny’s first semester as A-level example material, and she notes Konecny’s relentless desire to help. Tasked with executing all mentor scheduling and communications for SAP, for example, Konecny stunned Witt by not only handling those tasks, but then delivering hand-written thank-you notes—Witt estimates about 20—for all of the mentors to put in their portfolios.

As Konecny’s reputation grew within the department, faculty and staff got to know her personally and became familiar with—and supportive of—the struggles she still sometimes faces.

Elizabeth Konecny received the Outstanding BIS Academic Achievement Award.
Konecny received the Outstanding BIS Academic Achievement Award.

When her father died, she says, she knew she’d be in danger of “going numb” again—but classmates did, too. A couple of friends whisked Konecny to Barnes and Noble, and the group drank coffee and read from the home improvement section all day. She continues to rely on campus counseling services, faculty support, and friendships she’s built to battle through her mental health struggles and life events.

Now she is on the cusp of graduating with honors. She was the recipient of the Outstanding BIS Academic Achievement Award, and she has accepted a position as a quality assurance engineer at Workday. Working together on her commencement address, Witt says, Konecny now realizes the path she has taken is a special one.

“She never really thought of her situation as unique, or thought she’d overcome that much adversity,” Witt says, “but when we put pen to paper and made an outline, that’s when she could see it. She really has quite the story to tell.”


Travis Souders
University Communications
530-898-4143

Photos by Jason Halley.

Read the story via Chico State Today.