Rachael O’Donnell’s winding career path has taken her from the shores of North Carolina to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to Headshot of Rachael O’Donnell Okinawa, Japan. Along the way, a connection with Longwood University Health and Physical Education (HPE) Professor and HPE Graduate Program Director Dr. Amanda Blaisdell set her on a parallel journey pursuing her master’s degree as an international student at Longwood.

“After a few years spent on ideas and coursework that could lead me to become a speech-language pathologist, I realized it did not fit my lifestyle,” O’Donnell said. “I stumbled upon another passion: nutrition and health. The connection made with Dr. Blaisdell began my two years of coursework.”

Currently, a special education teacher at the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), a federal school system that educates children of DoD employees around the globe, O’Donnell balances her graduate studies with a full-time elementary school teaching job. Based in Japan, she has found a sense of purpose working with children who have emotional, behavioral and learning struggles. 

“Working with children connected to the military is no different than children who are not connected,” explained O’Donnell. “They still have needs, wants, and desires to be fulfilled at school, by teachers and peers.”

With the Longwood Health and Physical Education program’s fully online classes, O’Donnell can set her schedule and pace, which helps minimize the barriers that arise when pursuing a degree from halfway around the world. She even has the flexibility to pursue her current fitness goal: to run 37 5K races by her 37th birthday. 

“Although the HPE program is rigorous, it is not stressful,” O’Donnell said. “Every professor I have worked with has been understanding of my situation, and some have even been intrigued, which has led to great connections and discussions.”

O’Donnell’s unique career journey is driven by a sincere love of helping students grow and supporting them through transitions – both academic and social. 

“The most interesting part [of my job] is when students have to move to a new duty station due to their parents being relocated to a new location,” O’Donnell shared. “Sometimes this is a challenge, and sometimes it is a blessing in disguise. The transient community certainly keeps me on my toes.”

Since beginning her degree in 2021, O’Donnell has jumped into Longwood’s program feet first, enriching her courses with her uniquely international perspective. She plans to graduate in the spring of 2023. Ultimately, it is the relationships she has built with professors and peers – since that initial dialogue with Dr. Blaisdell – that have helped her find her fit at Longwood. 

“Longwood University and its staff members have been wonderful,” she said. “The last two years of my life have felt full of joy, confidence, eagerness, comfort and peace.”