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Senior finds love, inspiration at Carson-Newman

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Carson-Newman University senior Lexie Zepeda is graduating with honors, having overcome disability and loss with the help of her Eagle family.

(April 23, 2020) JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. — Growing up with diabetes and a rare bone disease that limited her mobility, Lexie Zepeda dreamed of helping others the way her doctors had fought to help her.

Years of bullying by classmates had eroded her self-confidence and left her with no love for school. But her mother, Nanette, and older sister, Alyssa, believed in her. Optimistic and full of life, Alyssa never let Lexie feel sorry for herself.

The night before she died in a car wreck, Alyssa told Lexie that everything would be different once she made it to college.

She told me, ‘No matter what happens, you’re going to have a lot of friends. Everything is going to be better, and it’s not going to be like high school,” Lexie said. “The whole four years at college, that’s all I thought about, ‘Hey, I’ve got to do good. I’ve got to make good grades to honor my sister.’”

When she first started at Carson-Newman University, Lexie said she was suffering from depression. Majoring in human services, she was determined to help others, but needed help herself.

“I felt very outcasted and different,” Lexie said. Sitting in her wheelchair, she tried to avoid others during student orientation. “I liked to be left alone and fade to the back a little bit. A couple of people in my orientation group as a freshman, they wouldn’t let me do that. They were always like, ‘Come on, let’s go do this!’”

The urging from classmates, faculty and staff to join activities and be involved didn’t end at orientation. More and more, Lexie found herself becoming a part of her new Carson-Newman family. She became an orientation leader, joined a lot of campus organizations and began volunteering every week at the University’s community ministry, Appalachian Outreach.

“A lot of my peers [in high school] called me a bunch of names,” she remembered. “When you get called that stuff, you start believing it. Then at Carson-Newman, I feel so loved, and I feel so safe there. It’s always been like, I’ll rearrange my whole schedule so I won’t miss any school.

A first-generation high school graduate and college student, she graduates May 1 — with honors.

“I’m so excited; I’m so happy,” said Lexie. “I think it was because I loved school so much that my grades were really high.”

She particularly credits David Humphrey, C-N’s coordinator for students with disabilities, for always being there to support her. He stepped up to the plate every time, including when she faced yet another huge loss.

Her mom was often seen on campus cheering Lexie on and praising C-N for pulling Lexie from her depression. Earlier this year, while Lexie and Nanette were ordering a cap and gown for graduation, her mom died of a sudden, massive heart attack.

Her Eagle family was there for Lexie, including Humphrey, who performed Nanette’s funeral.

“That meant the world to me,” she said.

Humphrey said it has been a pleasure to work with Lexie and watch her overcome every obstacle to achieve her goals.

“Lexie is a very hardworking and dedicated person,” Humphrey said. “I am grateful to be a part of her life and proud to be her friend.”

With the memory of her mother and sister’s optimism and unwavering faith in all she’d accomplish, Lexie still has her heart set on helping others. She’s planning to stay with her Carson-Newman family for a few more semesters, as she’s already been accepted into the master’s in counseling program.

“I remember when I was little, I just needed so much help, having a disability,” she said. “I just want to give back a little bit of what I was given.

The undergraduate commencement ceremony for Carson-Newman’s Class of 2020 has been rescheduled to a proposed date of August 7. This date is contingent upon safety recommendations surrounding COVID-19.

Founded in 1851, Carson-Newman is a Christian liberal arts-based university affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. The University is located in Jefferson City, Tennessee, among the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and has over 2,700 students. Carson-Newman offers 50 undergraduate majors, as well as associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

Lexie Zepeda, a Carson-Newman University senior, displays a portrait in which she holds close her mother, Nanette, and older sister, Alyssa, both of whom she tragically lost in recent years.

For media inquiries, visit the University Relations page.

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