Wife, mother, soldier, cancer survivor and now, Upper Iowa University graduate: Dionn Cato discovers who she is along life’s journey

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By Dionn Cato, ’13

Who am I?

This answer cannot be summed into one thing or another.

As I reflect on my life’s journey, I realize I am many things.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, the younger of two children, I would not have imagined the journey life had in store for me. In a selfless attempt to secure a better life and more opportunities for our family, my parents agreed that my mother would move to the United States and pave the way for us to take advantage of better educational opportunities. Shortly after, as planned, my father, older sister, and I reunited with my mother in the United States.

There I was, in New York and eager to take advantage of all that life had to offer.

In 1989, shortly after high school, I began studying at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.  My academic journey was under way and nothing would stop me; so I thought.

Taking advantage of life’s offerings includes the ups as well as the downs. After completing my first year of college I became a young wife and mom. The role of both wife and mother proved to be very demanding so I took a break from college to focus on my new family. Although there were struggles, being a wife and mother felt right.

However, the thought of resuming my academic pursuit appeared to move further and further away from my reality. The financial burden my husband and I would have incurred made my return to college seem nearly impossible.

Reflecting on the sacrifice and determination of my parents to open doors of opportunity for my sister and I, instilled an indescribable level of fortitude within me. I admire and am eternally grateful for their willingness to temporarily separate our family in a quest to secure comfort for us.

With this in mind, my husband and I agreed it was now necessary to step out of our comfort zones in order to secure a better life for our family.

In 1991, I enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve. Although it was difficult to be geographically separated from my husband and son, I knew this temporary situation would have lasting benefits.

I resumed my pursuit of earning a college degree through the use of tuition assistance offered by the military. In 1995, I earned an associate’s degree from Kingsborough Community College in New York.

There I was in 1995: now a wife, mother of two, soldier in the U.S. military, and holding an associate’s degree.  

Like before, these roles felt right, but my dream seemed unfulfilled. My ambitions of taking advantage of all life had to offer had not yet been realized.

Determined to improve the financial status of my family, I decided to join the active duty ranks of the United States Army Reserve and in 1995 I joined the Army Guard Reserve Program (AGR).

Active Guard Reserve (AGR) soldiers serve fulltime and enjoy the same benefits and entitlements of active duty soldiers, and the opportunity for retirement after 20 years of active service. Soldiers serving within the Active Guard Reserve program are stationed throughout the country at thousands of Army Reserve units in local communities and worldwide in positions that directly support the Army Reserve.  Doing so offered my family financial security, educational opportunities, and many other prospects we likely would not have been exposed to.

Educational opportunities were now within my reach. However, life has a way of taking you on numerous detours. In 1998, I gave birth to my third child. Now being a wife, mother of three, and a fulltime soldier made pursuit of a bachelor’s degree seem close to impossible.

In 2004, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I was certain my educational goals would not be realized. After months of medical consultations, surgeries, and a difficult period of rehab, I decided to revisit my academic goals.

Finally determined to work around life’s distractions, I decided to return to college in pursuit of a degree. I enrolled at Dallas Baptist University in Texas, and in 2006, transferred to Upper Iowa University (UIU).

Now a wife, mother of three, soldier, double mastectomy breast cancer survivor and UIU student, earning a Bachelor’s degree seemed possible.

Although life’s distractions continued, attending UIU felt right to me. I now not only had the support of my loving husband, but that of the University as well.

May 11, 2013, as I walked across the stage to retrieve the diploma I worked so hard to earn, I was overcome with an overwhelming feeling of triumph.

As I approached the graduation stage, I asked myself, ‘Who am I?’

As I began to walk across the stage, the answer came to me.

With each foot moving past the other, a proud smile on my face, the answer came to me.

I am a joyful wife, proud mother of a three beautiful children, a soldier in the United States Army Reserve AGR program, a breast cancer survivor, and now a graduate of Upper Iowa University.

I am truly grateful for all life has offered me thus far as my experiences have led me to do what I was destined to do and be where I am meant to be.

Dionn Cato has held numerous positions in the Army, including Human Resource Sergeant, Platoon Sergeant, Training and Operations Non Commissioned Officer, Rear Detachment Commander and now Senior Human Resource Sergeant for the 95th Training Division (IET) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.