“If you can read this, then I love you.”

That’s the message Sunshine Russell saw on the tablet her student handed her one ordinary school day last fall. As a special education educator who works with autistic children, seeing that screen meant something big for the student that wrote it, and to Sunshine herself.

“I literally cried,” recalls Sunshine, who is pursuing her Master of Arts in Special Education degree at the University of Arizona Global Campus. “When his mom came in for parent conferences, I showed her, and she cried too! It was a big deal for this child to express himself in that way.”

This is one of the many rewarding moments she experiences as an educator on a regular basis.

“It’s the look on their face when they ‘get it,’ she says. “You can see it in their eyes, when what you’ve been working on, even if it takes a long time … but that second when it clicks with them, and you see it on their face? That is my favorite thing.”

Building On Success Through Passion

Sunshine’s connection to education is one that continues to provide joy and fulfillment. Which is why she has pursued an education in the field. Prior to working on her master’s degree, she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Development with Differentiated Instruction Specializing in Intervention from UAGC in October 2022.

She credits both of her online degree programs for preparing her for classroom management, lesson planning, and more.

“I went from being a paraprofessional in the classroom to the teacher*, and that’s a big step,” she explains. “The way the program is set up and the way the classes run … it was a really good fit for me.”

Accidental Career of a Lifetime

Becoming an educator was a dream career that Sunshine never expected to pursue. She is currently working at a private charter school for autistic children with a classroom of six boys, all ages.

“That was never my lifelong goal. It was a bit of a shock when I decided to do that!”

A lifetime of other occupations precede Sunshine’s current role. She first worked in the tourism industry, bringing out-of-town guests to her hometown of Marietta, Ohio. After that, she worked in an accounting position, but it wasn’t until she started volunteering in her son’s kindergarten classroom that she discovered a deep passion for working with children.

“I was fortunate enough to work at the school that both of my children were attending,” she says. “I fell in love with the classroom and liked working with kids. I felt like that was where I really belonged.”

Balance Is Key

From her initial volunteer role, Sunshine built on her experience. Part-time work turned into a full-time position, where she then moved into an integrated preschool program. Before long, she began looking into online programs to transition into a full-time classroom role.

While attending classes, she helped run two small family businesses, all while being a mom of two. Her husband owns a general construction company as well as a roofing truss manufacturing company — both businesses that Sunshine has active involvement in through administrative and contract work.

Her obligations means that she needs to have a well-structured, so the flexibility of an online program was paramount. Luckily, she was able to work on her UAGC courses with relative ease.

“I was able to make it work,” she says. “I was able to keep up with it. I have a pretty solid schedule for when everything is due, and we worked around my school schedule. My husband understood how important getting things done on time is to me and my grades.”

Inspiration Right at Home

For Sunshine, her children were also two of her major inspirations to pursue a career in education. While her son and daughter are now adults, she attributes her success to their support, and claims she went back to complete her degree after seeing the trajectory of their respective paths.

“I decided to go back and finish my degree after I saw how successful my kids were,” she says. “I wanted to make them proud and do something for myself at the same time.”

Currently, her daughter is a PhD student, and her son is a senior in college. Sunshine says they encouraged her throughout her entire program.

“They were pushing me to do it,” she says. “Without their support, I never would have made it!”

It’s All in the Name

Ultimately, one of the factors that Sunshine attributes to her success is her unique name.

“I am a child of the 70s,” she says, laughing, “and my parents are just really cool people. They liked the name, and that’s what they chose for me!”

Sunshine explains that she approaches every life endeavor with an upbeat outlook, and doesn’t let anything sway her on her path. From finding her own study habits to tackling her educational career around life’s many demands, her motto holds firm: find what works best for you and stick to it.

“Attitude is a whole lot of achieving success, because as an educator, we have to be flexible,” she says. “Being positive and being flexible is such a huge part of everything we do. I always try to have a positive attitude when everything I do.”


Student success stories should not be interpreted as a promise or guarantee of career advancement or future earnings. The stories shared here represent the outcomes of individual students for illustrative purposes only.

*An online degree from the University of Arizona Global Campus does not lead to immediate teacher licensure in any state. If you want to become a classroom teacher, contact your state’s education authorities prior to enrolling at the University of Arizona Global Campus to determine what state-specific requirements you must complete before obtaining your teacher’s license. 

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