After 15 years in corporate America, Wil Loesel ’18 was looking for a change. He wanted to further his education, which he didn’t have the opportunity to do after high school, and he ultimately wanted to find a position where he could help others on a daily basis. His quest for a change led him to UNC Charlotte and a position with Teach For America. In the middle of his first year as a teacher and having to adjust to changes due to COVID-19, Loesel received a cancer diagnosis.
Loesel, a first-generation college student, came to UNC Charlotte after earning an associate degree from Central Piedmont Community College. He majored in marketing analytics, minored in psychology and was the recipient of the Bernard Osher Reentry Scholarship, which supports undergraduate students who have experienced a gap of five or more years in their education, are pursuing their first baccalaureate degree and who anticipate workforce participation for a significant period of time after graduation.
“I was inspired by the other students,” Loesel said. “Seeing how focused so many of them were at a young age, motivated me to study harder.” He was also inspired by his incredible professors, who supported him on his non-traditional journey. Loesel was setting an example for his children, about the importance and value of education.
After graduation, he started looking for a position that would make him feel proud at the end of the day, while allowing him to provide for his family. He was leaning toward social work when he listened to a podcast by Wendy Kopp, CEO and co-founder of Teach For America. He was intrigued and excited by her passion for education and for helping underserved children. He found what he was looking for, a teaching career.
“To be honest, I had no preference for a specific grade level,” said Loesel. “I knew I could find something beautiful in any grade and any subject.”
He embraced his new role, teaching eighth grade math at Albemarle Road Middle School, which is part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Loesel admits that the first half of the year was challenging.
“Being an effective teacher is difficult,” he said. “Teaching takes a lot of commitment.”
Not only was he learning how to teach, but he was learning how to balance having empathy for his 117 students while holding them to high standards. Loesel grew and learned along with his students and was lucky to have colleagues who readily helped him navigate his first year in the classroom.
Just as he was hitting his stride in the classroom, the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading across the United States, forcing him and his colleagues to start teaching remotely. A week into this “new normal,” he received news that would change his life once again. He was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“The timing of my diagnosis couldn’t have been any better,” said Loesel. “If I was going to get cancer, this was the time to get it. I didn’t miss time from class. As the pandemic hit, everything changed anyway.”
He started treatment immediately and never stopped teaching. He used Zoom to teach from his hospital room and kept in touch with students and colleagues via email.
“It wasn’t a decision to keep teaching,” he said. “Of course I was going to keep teaching.”
A friend recently asked Loesel if he has grieved over his diagnosis. His answer is heartfelt.
“There is so much positive energy around me,” he said. “I am on a path to positive recovery. I haven’t had a chance to be sad.”
His two young sons needed him. His students needed him. And he needed all of them.
He admits that everything moved fast. COVID-19 hit, schools went to remote learning, he received his diagnosis, he started getting media attention (He was featured on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and several local news outlets also covered his story) and then school was out for the summer.
UNC Charlotte also honored Loesel by dedicating a one-time Evergreen student award in his honor to cover the entire unmet need for a rising, nontraditional senior.
Loesel is now half-way through his cancer treatment, and he is seeing results.
“When you have a positive attitude, positive things happen,” he said.
Instead of looking backward, he is looking forward. There is a new school year on the horizon with new opportunities to impact students, and he is interested in returning to UNC Charlotte to continue studying psychology.
“You still have to move forward,” said Loesel. “This is your life. The only life you are going to have. You have to move forward.” Poignant words from an inspirational teacher.