Persistence pays off for graduate

May 20, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer

Some of the obstacles that stood in Rhonda Crawford's path to achievement -- physical and emotional -- might well have defeated someone less determined.

For one thing, the 31-year-old Howard County mother of two, who graduated last night from Howard Community College, spent nearly two years in a local shelter for domestic violence victims, along with her two young sons.

In her subsequent struggle to become self-sufficient and to further her education, she had to overcome a memory disorder and dyslexia, a learning disability.

Last night, Ms. Crawford took the stage at Howard Community (( College, one of two student speakers at the graduation ceremony for 321 students, the college's largest graduating class ever.

She spoke of her challenges and how she overcame them, earning a 3.4 grade-point average and three associate of arts degrees, one in accounting, one in office automation and one as an executive secretary. She hopes to become a certified public accountant.

In a theatrical and sometimes comic presentation, Ms. Crawford told the crowd in the college's gymnasium to focus on their dreams, regardless of the obstacles.

"We live in a throwaway society," she said, in remarks delivered more like a performance piece than a traditional speech. "If the pen doesn't write, throw it away. . . . If the relationship doesn't work, throw it away. We the chosen generation must learn to hold on.

"I'm telling you to dream to your fullest potential."

Ms. Crawford was the only graduate in the Class of 1994 to receive as many as three degrees.

"Earning one degree can be difficult," said college spokesman Randy Bengfort. "To pull multiple degrees requires an extraordinary amount of determination. To have multiple degrees with a high grade-point average is a special accomplishment."

Things never seemed to come easily to Ms. Crawford, who had attended other colleges years earlier but had fallen well short of what she felt was her potential.

In 1981, for example, she entered Montgomery College in Montgomery County, transferring in 1983 to what was then Towson State College. During her four years of study at those two schools, no one ever fully identified her learning disability.

"They just said I couldn't read," Ms. Crawford said.

In 1985, Ms. Crawford graduated from Towson State with a 2.1 GPA and a degree in finance and international business. A year later, she became involved in what eventually turned into an abusive relationship.

In the fall of 1989, Ms. Crawford moved into Howard County's Domestic Violence Center, which became her home for two years.

"Rhonda could be a real sort of role model," said Stephanie Sites, executive director of the Domestic Violence Center, who knew Ms. Crawford while she was at the center. "She has been absolutely amazing in what she has done and what she has accomplished."

Ms. Crawford's struggle didn't end with her refuge in the Domestic Violence Center, however.

While there, she worked at a bank as an investment account representative, trying to bring stability to her life and to the lives of her two sons, now 5 and 7.

She lost that job after two years, fired in May 1991, she said, because of all her absences to care for her younger son, Arreon. He has severe asthma, which required her to take him to the hospital frequently, sometimes two or three times a day.

In June 1991, Ms. Crawford left the Domestic Violence Center. She was forced to depend on welfare to sustain her family while she looked for opportunities to gain more skills.

Then, in September 1991, she enrolled at Howard Community College through New Focus, a state-funded program that helps single parents and displaced homemakers get occupational training, develop marketable skills and learn how to search for jobs.

Ms. Crawford found further difficulties in her drive to become a certified public accountant. In 1991, specialists at the college diagnosed her as having dyslexia and a short-term memory disability.

"It takes me eight hours to do a chapter," Ms. Crawford said. "It wasn't really easy."

But she persevered, earning the admiration of those at the college who worked with her, including Janice Marks, director of the community college's Learning Assistance Center.

"She's unique," said Ms. Marks. "She's done everything right. You couldn't ask for a better student."

Ms. Crawford still has one major hurdle to clear: In November, she takes the CPA exam.

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