For some, the path to degree is a rocky road

May 22, 2006

EDINBORO, Pa. (AP) - Tina Hammer is not your traditional college graduate.

At 32, she is older than most of her classmates.

She finished her schooling in three years, not four.

And cheering her from home when she walked during commencement on May 13 at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania was be the single mom's three disabled children.

College graduation is just another step forward for Hammer on what has been a long road.

"It's a steppingstone," Hammer said. "It's just one more in other goals."

In a larger sense, Hammer represents one member in the class of 2006 for the region's colleges, which are scheduled to graduate more than 3,400 students in the next few weeks.

Like some area students, her path to that degree has been a rocky one.

The bends in that road to graduate include putting herself through high school after the grandparents who raised her died when she was in 10th grade; a divorce a few years back; and the premature birth of quadruplets nine years ago. One of them died after just a few days.


Hammer expects to become a clinical psychologist, specializing in deaf clients. She has already enrolled in Edinboro's psychology master's program. She expects to go for her doctorate as soon as she can.

She'll be thinking of that future and not the work she has already completed when she is handed her degree next week.

The first graduation in area schools was Saturday at Gannon University.

Semaj Vanzant was to be among the 850 students awarded a degree at Gannon.

He is a New Orleans native and the school's first black student body president.

The year hasn't been easy for him. Only bricks remain of his childhood home, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in August.

And Vanzant, 21, would feel the absence of his father - who died during his senior year of high school.

After getting his political science degree, Vanzant is headed to Princeton Theological Seminary this fall and hopes to one day become a pastor. He said he would focus on that instead of the more difficult moments in his life.

"I don't look at them as tragedies, I look at them as learning, just steps and pebbles along my journey," Vanzant said.

The journey to an associate degree in business administration was tough for Robin Saunders.

Saunders, a 38-year-old mother of two, graduated for the first time in her life on Saturday.

She dropped out of Strong Vincent High School in the 10th grade and didn't think she'd ever go back to school.

When her former employer, Verizon Communications, offered her a chance to earn an associate's degree from Mercyhurst College, she enthusiastically accepted.

Saunders worked 12-hour days, between class and her job as a directory-assistance operator at Verizon. And that doesn't include homework time.

She has already ordered her cap and gown and looks forward to walking the graduation stage in front of her daughters, Patricia Saunders, 17, and Carolyn LaRock, 13.

"The way my life has been, this is the first major accomplishment I've achieved," Saunders said.

Returning to school and being the oldest person in the class while working full time was overwhelming, Saunders said. But all the struggle was worth it, given the example she provided her children.

Patricia will graduate from Erie Strong Vincent in June and Carolyn will graduate from the eighth grade at Harding Elementary and then attend Collegiate Academy in the fall.

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