He was one of her biggest supporters when she returned to school to become a registered nurse, and he cheered her on when things got tough. So Penny Pearson was crushed to learn that her son would not return from his Army deployment in time to see her graduate.
But Sgt. Dustin Pearson, 29, had secretly arranged to attend the event and present her with her nursing pin. As he surprised her last week, Penny Pearson sobbed and embraced the son she hadn’t seen in nearly a year as she realized her childhood dream of studying to be an RN.
“I was over the moon,” Penny Pearson, 50, told TODAY. “I was just like, Oh my God. My boy is here.”
“Besides my wedding and having my children, I think this ranks right up there as one of the top events in my life,” said Pearson, of North Mankato, Minnesota, who also has twin 23-year-old daughters and two grandchildren.
When Dustin was a baby, she began studying to become a registered nurse, but it was too much with a young family. She left the program and went to technical college instead to become a licensed practical nurse, never letting go of the dream of becoming the higher-credentialed RN.
“I just kind of had to put it on the wayside to raise children,” she said. “It’s been a goal of mine ever since I can remember. I love helping people.”
Her husband, Kurt, and all three children encouraged her to go back to school. “‘You’re not getting any younger,’” she recalled Dustin telling her.
Penny enrolled at Rasmussen College in July 2015, working toward her associate’s degree in nursing while working full time as an LPN at an assisted living facility. Her husband handled the laundry, cooking and cleaning at home, and her daughters supported her as well.
Dustin always found the perfect way to help when she struggled. He was deployed last year and the two spoke often, she said, because with him so far away, “it felt like a part of your soul is missing.”
“I have test anxiety so bad and it was a calming effect for me to talk to him whether he was here or thousands of miles away,” she said. “He always seemed to have the right thing to say to help me through it.”
“I’d call him in tears,” she recalled. “He’d say, ‘You got this, Mom. Just keep pushing through it.’”
On March 15, the day of the pinning ceremony, Pearson called her son, who was already back in the United States from his deployment in Iraq and Kuwait. He cut the call short, saying he had to go to a doctor’s appointment at Fort Bliss in Texas. She cried, devastated that he was unable to get back to Minnesota.
Dustin Pearson had secretly returned home to his wife and two children several days earlier. When he knew he could attend the ceremony, he asked the college and his dad to let him present the pin.
“She’s always been my best friend,” Dustin said of his mom. “She’s always been there for me. She helped me get through some hard times.
“I know that becoming an RN meant a ton to her, so I really wanted to surprise her,” he added. “I was like if I can make it just a little bit more memorable, we’re going to do that.”
As he placed the ribbon holding the nursing pin around his mom’s neck, Dustin shared the joy of seeing her for the first time in months and celebrating her long-sought professional achievement.
“She’s accomplished a lifelong goal she had to put on hold to start a family,” Dustin said. “Not that many people get to do that. I’m nothing but proud of her.”
TODAY.com contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter: @lisaflam