By Erika Webb
School graduations bid thoughts of bright beginnings for hardworking scholars. For some, life's hardships expedite dreams and set them firmly ahead on the path to achievement.
A sampling of 3,100 Daytona State College students who received diplomas in two ceremonies at the Ocean Center May 13 yielded several whose circumstances have led them to achieve more and inspire others.
Joshua Washington of Daytona Beach spent four years of his childhood fighting for his life. His mother's college experience was placed on hold while she cared for her son and her mother, as each battled cancer.
Leukemia didn't defeat him.
"Now Josh has made good on his mom's college dreams by earning two associate degrees and graduating this May with his bachelor's in supervision and management, with a specialization in broadcast/TV production," DSC spokeswoman Laurie White wrote in the Class of 2013-14 profile briefs.
The first male in his family to earn a college degree, Mr. Washington feels responsible to be an example to those who follow.
"My mom and my sisters, they're so stoked to see me graduate; they're all coming," he said. "I think I might cry walking across that stage; it's been such a long journey, from cancer to breaking the mold and making it all the way."
Artistic tendencies compelled Sabrina Fernandez of Deltona to earn her bachelor's degree from Stetson University, but difficulty breaking into the workforce sent her back to school, this time to DSC where she completed her associate degree in occupational therapy.
OT will satisfy her desire to improve, through art, the lives of the injured and physically challenged.
After shadowing OT assistants in the field, Ms. Fernandez saw the application of arts and crafts helping others heal and gain confidence needed to re-connect to a semblance of normalcy, according to the briefs.
"An Outstanding Student (award) winner, at the college's 2014 awards ceremony, Fernandez applies her passion for art and health to college, to work and volunteering," Ms. White noted.
Where there were blank walls, Ms. Fernandez spent three months creating "the OT story" via a 36x36 oil painting she donated to the OT program.
"I wanted other new students to 'see' what OT represents," she said.
Years of self-doubt, emotional and physical pain following a 2002 motorcycle wreck derailed 42-year-old Rebecca Morn's formerly stable existence.
A traumatic brain injury and severe spinal damage led to the Port Orange resident spending days in a coma and years in rehabilitation. She was unable to continue working as a hairstylist and forced to apply for Social Security Disability.
Doctors predicted she would not surpass the mental capacity of a five-year old, she said.
She enrolled at DSC but found she was unable to focus, follow simple instructions or remember things. She gave up.
But she never gave in to self-pity.
Instead, Ms. Morn looked away from herself and saw something that would change her course and renew her resolve -- soldiers returning from the battlefields.
"I saw that so many were coming back with PTSD," she said. "They couldn't hold jobs or keep their relationships. So many were having suicidal thoughts. I felt that with all I've been through, maybe I can help so I decided to come back to school and try again."
In 2010, she returned to DSC under the college's TRiO Student Support Services program.
The federally funded program serves up to 160 students a year, Ms. White explained.
"(TRiO helps) them succeed in college through a comprehensive intervention process that includes tutoring, mentoring, advising and helping students focus on their educational plans and strategies," she stated.
Ms. Morn earned her associate degree with high honors and plans to pursue a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Central Florida in Daytona Beach.
"She hopes also to work at the local veterans center as an intern while in school," Ms. White noted.
As a hairstylist she was accustomed to listening to people and sharing her philosophies in an effort to help them. She plans to write a memoir over the summer to continue that mission.
"What I try to tell people is no matter how bad my pain is, how frustrating my brain injury is I get up every day and I'm grateful," Ms. Morn said. "I'm here. I can talk and I can walk. I don't have to be in a wheelchair and I can make my own decisions. No matter how bad it is, life can always be worse."
Dual enrollment -- the program that allows high school students to take college courses toward associate degrees -- is becoming more popular by the year, largely for economic reasons.
Rebecca Dykes will receive her diploma from Atlantic High School on May 31, 18 days after she received her associate of arts degree from DSC.
"She'll go from high school to being a junior at the University of Central Florida, where she will major in chemistry, saving her parents bundles of cash, since dual-enrolled students attending Daytona State pay no tuition," Ms. White explained.
Ms. Dykes hopes to someday work as a crime-lab analyst specializing in trace evidence.
"I've always been interested in solving puzzles, problem solving and science," she said. "But I'm also a realist. The employment landscape is often volatile, so I think it's important to have a degree that will provide me a background for alternative employment."
Ranked fourth out of 233 graduating students at Atlantic High, Ms. Dykes is in the Honor Society Club at Atlantic and on the President's and Dean's list at DSC. She is a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.
She volunteers, helping with child care activities at church, participates in missionary trips to Nicaragua and in fundraisers for breast cancer awareness and the American Heart Association.
"Rebecca has demonstrated the kind of positive attitude and self-discipline that makes her a model student who is certain to achieve success in life," said Dean of Education Les Potter,
Mr. Washington did not cry as he walked across the stage.
"I was recording it with a GoPro so I had to compose myself," he said, chuckling.
He'll take a year off to organize his portfolio in preparation for further studies -- a master's degree in producing and directing.
As for his mother:
"My mom went back and finished her bachelor's degree in 2002," Mr. Washington said. "She (earned) her first master's in 2010 and her second master's in 2013."
Talk about setting an example.
"She pushed us all the way," Mr. Washington added. "She said circumstances mean nothing. If you want something you go after it and get it."