Nontraditional Niners succeed academically — and in life

Emmanuelle Olavarria-Torres and Sarah Tesar are displaying tenacity and perseverance to fulfill their dream of earning a college degree.
Monday, November 20, 2023

As a professional wrestler, he was known as Mayhem, but two decades later Emmanuelle Olavarria-Torres is closing in on a new moniker – Charlotte graduate.

Olavarria-Torres, originally from Puerto Rico, grew up in a multigenerational family in Salisbury, North Carolina. He enjoyed school and excelled academically.

“But as I entered my teenage years, I struggled to find my place in the world,” he recounted to attendees of the annual scholarship luncheon for the Office of Adult Students and Extended Services. “After high school, I enrolled at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, but I found myself overwhelmed and unprepared for the rigors of college-level coursework.”

emmanuelle olavarria-torresWrestling was a childhood dream, which he pursued when he had the opportunity. After traveling the Southeastern United States for seven years, Olavarria-Torres grappled with the realities of professional wrestling — it turned out to be less glamorous than he believed originally, and the pay was inconsistent. In 2006, a more ominous adversary emerged. Undiagnosed hypertension, resulting in renal failure, requiring a kidney transplant.

“Today, I am doing very well, and I keep up with my routine appointments and guidelines provided by my medical team at Atrium Health,” said Olavarria-Torres. “I am grateful for the kidney transplant and the highly skilled, talented professionals at Atrium and the support from my wife, Amanda, and from family and friends who helped throughout this journey.”

A path forward

Re-enrolling in community college in 2016, Olavarria-Torres completed an associate degree in marketing and advertising. He transferred to UNC Charlotte for its “renowned academic programs and vibrant campus community that fosters personal and intellectual growth. I found the perfect environment to nurture my academic interests and personal development.”

A recipient of the James S. McCormack Scholarship, Olavarria-Torres noted the financial assistance has enabled him “to engage in enriching experiences such as research projects, academic conferences and extracurricular activities that align with his career aspirations.”

On track to finish a Bachelor of Science in Business Analytics this December, he plans to complete a Master of Accountancy.

“My educational journey has taught me many important and valuable lessons about perseverance, hard work and determination,” said Olavarria-Torres. “I want to express my deep appreciation for the McCormack Scholarship and the entire UNC Charlotte community for their support and belief in my potential. This scholarship is not just a financial aid; it is a testament to the power of education and the belief in the capacity of individuals to create positive change in the world.”

Igniting lifelong learning

Fellow OASES speaker Sarah Tesar recounted her own meandering path to UNC Charlotte and her motivation to become a clinical social worker.

sarah tesarDuring her senior year of high school in Conyers, Georgia, two house fires left her single mother struggling to keep the family afloat. Tesar dropped out of high school to work full time, moving in with her partner. After the relationship ended, she traveled to Colorado in an attempt to work with the Renaissance Festival. Instead, she found employment at a candy shop that involved touring the country until accepting an apprenticeship with a glass worker, learning to make lamps and figurines. In 2013, at the Arizona Renaissance Festival, she met her future husband, Jim.

Tesar, compelled to start over, encouraged her husband to move back to his home state, North Carolina. They settled in Cleveland where she started working at Starbucks. Having earned a GED, she enrolled in Arizona State University online for a single course and fell in love with learning.

“When I left high school, my life was in tatters. I had no support from my family. I was drinking heavily to try to cope with all the chaos, and I was embarrassed that I was failing. So, when I got to college 10 years later, with a loving and supportive husband, a steady home, food in the kitchen and sober, I was amazed to find how much I enjoyed school,” said Tesar.

Transferring to Mitchell Community College, Tesar trained to become a phlebotomist. An encounter with a patient whose blood she drew in preparation for surgery would lead to a life-changing direction. She witnessed the man’s transfer to ICU for the procedure. Shortly afterward, Tesar learned he and his wife were being sent home; the surgery was too risky and comfort-care hospice was recommended.

“This decision hadn’t even been delivered by the doctor,” said Tesar. “A nurse told the patient’s wife and just left her to process the news by herself. I was shaken. How dare they? She was lost. The couple had been together for decades, and now he was dying. She had no idea what to do. That is when I changed my mind. I decided I would become a hospice social worker.”

The next right thing

With financial support from the Bettie Weir McEwen Scholarship, Tesar anticipates completing a Bachelor of Social Work in May 2024 and beginning the Master of Social Work program with the goal to graduate in May 2025 and become a licensed clinical social worker.

Reflecting upon her journey, Tesar embraced a mantra voiced by the character Olaf from the movie series, “Frozen.” Just do the next right thing.

“When life gets tough, and we are stuck in an actual pit or a metaphorical one. Just take one step and then another. I took that first step and then another and continue to do the next right thing,” said Tesar. “I am grateful to have met so many wonderful people in my life. I do not know many individuals who drop out of high school and then go on to get a master’s degree, but I know that I did not do it alone. My husband, Jim; friends; professors like Kevin Edwards-Knight and others in the College of Health and Human Services; and donors who came to cheer me on today and who have rallied around me — that is why I am successful.”

Impact of scholarship and opportunities

Janet Daniel, OASES director, noted, “UNC Charlotte has a long-standing commitment to providing access and opportunity to all deserving students. One of the University’s strengths is the diversity of thoughts and perspectives represented on campus. Nontraditional students often bring real-world experiences into their classes, which enhance the learning experience for everyone. This year, we recognized 95 nontraditional student scholarship recipients. Many of them share similar backgrounds to our speakers, Emmanuelle and Sarah, and like them, display tenacity and perseverance to fulfill their dream of earning a college degree.”

OASES, the Office of Adult Students and Extended Services, is dedicated to meeting the unique needs of nontraditional students. Each academic year, the office awards scholarships to commendable adult learners. View a listing of this year’s scholarship recipients.

2023 OASES scholarship recipients who attended special luncheon