Since she was a little girl, Rhonda Kendall's grandmother told her that she would make a great nurse.
By the time she was 15, hopes for that dream seemed to be dashed. Just a ninth-grader, Kendall became pregnant, dropped out of school and had a baby.
But even then, her strong spirit was evident. Kendall went to night school and earned her GED at 16.
"I was determined," said Kendall, now 31, of Hagerstown. "I wanted to finish what I'd started."
Then once again, her tide turned away from education. By age 20, she was married and had two more babies.
Kendall found employment in banking, but she did not find it to be fulfilling. Neither did her marriage prove to be successful. At 27, she was a single mother working in what she deemed a dead-end job. It was then that Kendall decided to do what she had always dreamed of.
"I always wanted to do something taking care of people," she said. "I went back to school, full time, head-first."
Kendall graduated Saturday with an associate degree in nursing during the 2011 Hagerstown Community College commencement at HCC's Athletic, Recreation and Community Center.
The first two years of college, Kendall completed her prerequisite classes.
"That was pretty chaotic," she said.
She credits her fiancé for encouraging her, and her oldest daughter, Kayla, now 16, for helping her with late-night studying.
Halfway through her studies, when she had completed prerequisite classes and was about to begin the nursing program, Kendall's goal once again was threatened when she became pregnant with her fourth child.
"I had just finished pediatrics during the summer session," she said. "I had a really hard time deciding if I should go back to school or stay home."
It was support from family and HCC staff and faculty that convinced her to press on through clinicals, labs and classes. This month, Kendall celebrates not only her graduation, but also her baby's first birthday.
"I feel great," she said. "I want my children to have a good role model. They've seen me struggle all my life. Now, they see me accomplishing my dream."
Graduate Jessica Cripps shared remarks with the graduating class. Cripps, 26, of Hagerstown, said her education at HCC helped get her focused and moving in the right direction.
Cripps graduated from Williamsport High School in 2003. She attended HCC for a year, then left due to financial circumstances, she said. After working as a server at various establishments for many years, she decided to go back to school.
Though she earned an associate degree in English, it was an anthropology class taught by Suzannah Moran that resonated with her most. Cripps, who graduated with high honors, plans to continue that course of study at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"I like having some letters after my name. I'm looking forward to getting more of them," Cripps said. "Before, I didn't know where I was going. I felt like I didn't know how to get the ball rolling. Now, I'm looking forward and I have a lot more direction."
Beth Stull, HCC's director of public information, said the 2011 graduating class was the largest in the history of the college, with 476 students earning degrees and 60 earning certifications. More than 230 graduates participated in the ceremony and about 2,000 people attended.
Guy Altieri, president of the college, exhorted graduates to be of good character.
"Life is much more than the total sum of your possessions," Altieri said. "Such things will wear away, they'll rust away. It's the internal things, like your character, that will never tarnish."