MONT ALTO, Pa. — When Sharita Statum walked to the podium to accept her diploma from Penn State Mont Alto during Saturday’s spring commencement, she had three things on her mind — Jayden, 7, Ja’nye, 4, and Lyric, 1 month.
Juggling the role of busy mother while taking classes was grueling at times, but for Statum it was worth everything she endured to earn her associate degree in occupational therapy and teach her children an important lesson.
“I was determined to have a bright future and for my kids. I wanted to set an example for them,” Statum said.
She graduated from Chambersburg (Pa.) Area Senior High School in 1995, and said some of her younger peers couldn’t believe she would tackle the rigors of college life while raising a family.
“I started (at Mont Alto) when I was 31, and now I’m 34. I want my son to go to college after high school, but if he doesn’t, I want him to know that it doesn’t matter when you go — it matters that you go,” said Statum, of Shippensburg, Pa.
She started classes in 2008 and found out she was pregnant with Lyric in the fall. She took the fall semester off, but returned to her regular course load immediately after.
While the rest of her class was taking finals, Statum was in the Chambersburg Hospital giving birth to Lyric.
Just one week after her birth, Lyric — born April 17 — accompanied her mother to final exams.
As if the tiny newborn knew how important completing finals was to her mother, Statum said Lyric didn’t utter a sound.
“I am proud of her. She deserved it — she worked very, very hard,” said Statum’s fiance, Kenny King. “It was tough for her, but she definitely put the things that were most important for her first, and I think that’s what helped her achieve where she is now.”
Born to be a lion
Allegra Nittany Heebner, 24, of Gettysburg, Pa., comes from a long line of Penn State-proud alumni.
It was that pride that inspired Heebner’s parents, Donna and MacDonald Heebner — both Penn State grads — to give their youngest child the middle name Nittany.
“I think that’s why they gave me the name Nittany, so I had to go to Penn State,” Heebner said with a chuckle.
At Saturday’s graduation, she received a bachelor of science degree in human development and family studies that she earned in the fall of 2010.
She also completed an associate degree in human development and family studies in the spring of 2008, and an associate degree in occupational therapy in the fall of 2009.
“We’re extremely proud of her. It’s overwhelming. We have four kids, and to see the last one do this and be successful and carrying on the family Penn State legacy, it’s just overwhelming,” Donna Heebner said.
She plans to work toward a master’s degree in occupational therapy from a Penn State branch campus.
The power of education
For 34-year-old Jennifer Hutsler of Chambersburg, education is power, and that philosophy never meant more to her than four years ago.
Things were going pretty smoothly for the single mother. She earned an associate degree in nursing from Penn State Mont Alto in 2004 and worked as a nurse for Summit Health at Chambersburg Hospital as a registered nurse.
“I loved my job and everyone I worked with,” Hutsler said.
But, back surgery to repair a herniated disc in 2007 accompanied by a severe wound infection nearly killed her and any dreams of practicing nursing again.
“I was septic, went into multiorgan failure, was flown to Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center and admitted to the hospital five times in 2007 due to recurrence of the infection, which traveled to my spine,” she said.
Hutsler, then 30, was unable to care for herself, walked with a walker and depended on the help of her mother to accomplish the basic necessities of life.
“It was a horrendous time for me,” Hutsler said. “But, I wasn’t going to give up on my love of nursing, and I knew that the only way I could go back to it (nursing) was through continuing my nursing education.”
Since her physical limitations prevented her from working as a floor nurse providing direct patient care, she returned to Penn State Mont Alto to purse a bachelor’s degree that would enable her to work in a more administrative capacity.
She maintained a position on the dean’s list each semester during her baccalaureate pursuit and was recently chosen as one of only six students accepted into the Penn State School of Nursing’s master’s degree program, which will be offered for the first time at Mont Alto in the fall.
“I have always been a very motivated and goal-driven individual, and school has been an integral part of my life. I feel I’m a positive role model for my daughter, Lindsay, who will graduate from high school next year,” Hutsler said.
“I just think people need to overcome whatever odds they’re facing. You just can’t give up and I didn’t give up,” she said.