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Graduating with honors and tears

Through many personal hardships, she realizes dream

Through many personal hardships, she realizes dream

April 21, 2008|By MARIE GILBERT

HAGERSTOWN - With no operator's manual to guide her, Lori Pierce's life over the past 18 years has taken her down some bumpy roads.

She saw 22 years of marriage end in divorce, became homeless and lost a stepdaughter to leukemia.

But through all the unspeakable hardships, the Hagerstown woman clung to a dream. She wanted to graduate from college.

Saturday morning, her dream came true.

Pierce was among 128 students who received diplomas and certificates from Kaplan College during commencement ceremonies at North Hagerstown High School.

Not only did Pierce graduate cum laude from the medical secretary/assistant program, she was selected to be one of two student speakers.

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"This is such an honor," Pierce said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be asked to represent the class."

But her selection was a natural choice, said Shannon Cianelli, director of career services at Kaplan.

"Her story is so incredible," she said. "I think people will be very moved when they hear it."

Pierce, 43, said she always had wanted a career in the field of medicine, and decided 18 years ago to attend college while working.

"But once I said I was going back to school, my husband left," she said.

Soon afterward, she lost her house and became homeless, but continued to work, raise her children and take an occasional college course.

Then, in 2006, she heard about the medical secretarial/assistant program at Kaplan and decided to pursue an associate degree.

Soon after enrolling for classes, Pierce's 17-year-old stepdaughter was diagnosed with leukemia. She died in April 2007.

"She's the reason I'm receiving my diploma today," Pierce said. "She encouraged me to continue with my education. She wanted me to do this. She gave me the courage and determination not to give up and not to quit."

Pierce said hope and strength would be the message of her commencement speech "because if I can do it, you can, too. You take it one day at a time, one step at a time and you never stop dreaming."

Holding onto a handful of tissues, Pierce said she knew that Saturday would be an emotional day for her. But she also was excited that her long journey to a college degree finally would be over.

Following commencement, she was going to celebrate with family and friends before heading to Myrtle Beach, S.C. - a graduation gift from her fianc, who she called her biggest support system.

But Pierce said she will remain in touch with several of her professors who mentored her, including Nancy Szwydek, medical assistant program director and professor of allied health.

"Her life experience and mine have made us very compatible," Szwydek said. "She's not only a wonderful student, she's become my friend. We'll have a long relationship."

Her relationship with Kaplan College may be long, too. Pierce said several of her professors are encouraging her to return to Kaplan to pursue her bachelor's degree so she can one day teach at the school.

"I think she would make an excellent teacher," Szwydek said.

W. Christopher Motz, president of Kaplan College, said there was an air of excitement at the spring commencement - "as well there should be. These individuals have put in a lot of work and some have overcome tremendous obstacles. This is the culmination of all their efforts. Now, they're ready to step out and begin their careers."

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