(VIDEO) Deshawn Nix was awarded a posthumous bachelor’s degree in university studies.
Standing in line with the soon-to-be graduates of Texas Tech University's 2019 fall class, Ashley Nix couldn't help thinking how wrong it was for her to be there. It wasn't that the diploma waiting for her hadn't been earned – but that it had been earned by someone else.
Yet as the student ahead of her walked across the stage and shook hands with university President Lawrence Schovanec, Nix knew the moment had come for which she'd been waiting a long time.
She took a deep breath and stepped forward as the announcer read, "Texas Tech University is privileged to award posthumously a Bachelor of Arts degree in university studies to Mr. Deshawn Donye Nix. Mrs. Ashley Nix will accept the degree in honor of her husband."
Ashley and Shawn, as he preferred to be called, met and began dating in the fall of 2003.
Shawn was a first-year engineering student at Texas Tech, and when he wasn't in class, he was a dock worker for FedEx Freight. A few years into their relationship, FedEx offered him an opportunity to move into a supervisory position in Midland.
"FedEx Freight is an amazing company," Ashley said. "They pay really well, and they take care of their employees, so he thought it was something he needed to pursue. As for his school, he said, 'I'll go back to finish later.'"
The couple moved to Midland. Then Roswell. Then Farmington. Then Amarillo. Then College Station. Along the way, on Dec. 11, 2010, they got married.
Each move represented a step up in the company, such that by the time they arrived in College Station, Shawn was the center manager.
"Being in College Station, I think, kind of fueled him," Ashley laughed. "It was funny, because he was the big dog and his office was decked out in Texas Tech in the middle of Aggieland. Being such a diehard Red Raider fan living in Aggieland really just kind of gave him that push, like, 'I've got to get my degree so I can show all you Aggies.'"
Back to school
Shawn re-enrolled at Texas Tech for distance education classes and began working toward his degree again.
"When he got his class ring, he showed it off like a newly engaged girl," Ashley laughed.
Although he had started in engineering, Shawn now had no intention of leaving FedEx, so he switched to university studies, focusing on organizational leadership, communication studies and integrative studies.
"I think he did those three because he could use those in his current job – it just worked best with what would help him in his career," Ashley said. "Some of the classes he took were really easy for him because he had already been putting that stuff in practice for many years in his job. He was writing papers, giving real-world examples of stuff he had done."
Becoming an example
In 2017, Ashley gave birth to their daughter, Aria, and Shawn became a devoted dad on top of everything else. For some people, trying to finish school under such circumstances might have been too much – but it wasn't for Shawn.
"For one, he was a diehard Texas Tech fan," Ashley said. "Also, with my husband's personality type, he did not like to not finish something. I think it always really bugged him that he hadn't finished. And like I said, he also was a workaholic – it just gave him one more thing to do that he probably didn't have time to do anyway.
"One of the biggest things was our daughter."
Ashley had started college at Texas Tech and earned her associate degree from Amarillo College after moving there, but she hadn't yet finished her bachelor's degree. Shawn was determined that at least one of Aria's parents would.
"He just wanted our daughter to see him follow through and get his education," Ashley said. "He wanted to show that, just because you take a big break doesn't mean you can't go back and finish it."
Shawn, an avid griller, cooked out for his employees frequently – sometimes as often as twice a week. But one fateful day in mid-November 2018 changed everything.
"He had picked up five or six frozen briskets, and all of a sudden he had a pain in his back," Ashley said. "He thought he had hurt his back lifting that brisket. Unfortunately, he went to the doctor and instead of doing a thorough examination, she just gave him pain pills that kind of masked the symptoms."
It wasn't a back injury; Shawn had pancreatitis – inflammation that happens when digestive enzymes inside the pancreas start digesting the pancreas itself. Because it went untreated so long, Shawn's pancreatitis became life-threatening.
"I think it was like the perfect storm," Ashley said. "I mean, he went to work the day of. He had been up all night in pain and still went to work. That's the kind of man my husband was; he didn't miss work. But he called me from work saying I would have to take him to the emergency room.
"Within two days he was in critical care in the Intensive Care Unit. Within two weeks, he was gone."
Shawn died on Dec. 7, 2018 – four days before their eighth wedding anniversary.
But while he was in the hospital, Shawn made it clear to Ashley just how important his studies were to him.
"He was in absolute-misery pain, but he was still begging me to email his professors," she remembers. "He also wanted me to bring him his work laptop because he didn't want to get behind on work. He was just adamant that he not fail those classes. I kept telling him, 'That's not important right now.' He was kind of getting irritated with me, like, 'No, no, you have to email my professors for me.' Of course, I was worried about him. I didn't care about his classes."
But after Shawn died, it began to really bother Ashley that he'd been so close to graduating – to achieving the goal he'd worked toward for so long – and hadn't been able to finish. What's more, Shawn's death had left Ashley with no proof to show Aria of his belief in the importance of education.
For that reason, she reached out to Shawn's academic advisers shortly after his death and asked if they could give her an official letter stating that Shawn had been working toward his degree.
"I was just going to have it framed to put up on the wall," she said.
The response from Texas Tech surpassed anything she'd imagined.
"I don't know if 'spiral' is a good word, but next thing you know, they're asking me if they can lower the flag to half-staff for him and they offered to give him an honorary degree if he'd met all the qualifications, which he had," Ashley said. "It just kept going and going."
Sarah Schwintz, director of University Programs, said the families of deceased students always have the option to participate in the graduation ceremony should they choose to, although few families do.
"It's pretty significant to say, 'I want to come and be a part of the ceremony and walk across stage,'" Schwintz said. "I think it was very courageous what Ashley did."
Saturday morning (Dec. 14), Ashley found herself in the United Supermarkets Arena among hundreds of graduates. Shawn's family had come – his father from Washington, D.C., and his mother and stepfather from Houston. His sister in Ohio was watching the livestream. But one very important person was missing.
Instead of having Shawn by her side, Ashley had his class ring around her neck.
"The whole graduation, I was sitting there thinking about what he would have been doing, because it should be him accepting it," Ashley said. "You're seeing the students walk in, and you're thinking, 'I should be watching my husband walking in.'
"He would have been over the moon to have his family here and show them the Texas Tech campus. He would have been up on that stage and posing for pictures in front of the seal. It was pretty emotional."
But looking back on the experience now, while it's still emotional, Ashley is able to finally feel some closure.
"It was awesome because, not only was it healing for me, but now I have that degree I can hang on the wall for my daughter to see every day," Ashley said. "I kind of feel like he finished, you know; he got that degree he was working so hard for. It feels like I was able to finish something he wanted so badly."
'Not enough words'
Although she felt affection toward Texas Tech as her alma mater before all this happened, her sentiments for the university now go beyond that.
"It is amazing, especially with as big as Texas Tech is," Ashley said.
"As important as Shawn was to me and my daughter, he wasn't a prominent member in the Texas Tech community or anything; he was just another student. But they went out of their way – I am amazed that they have gone above and beyond for us. There are not enough words for how much I appreciate it."