As thousands of Baltimore-area college students accept their diplomas this spring, many will have found themselves profoundly transformed by the experience.
Members of the Class of 2014 include a woman with cystic fibrosis who was told she would never live to see graduation. One is a South African who had her son while in college and hopes to return home to teach schoolchildren with special needs. One will fly to Kenya this summer to finish work on a clean drinking water system. Another had a turbulent childhood in foster care and spent time in jail before joining a church and enrolling in college. And one son of hard-working immigrants hopes to unionize low-wage workers.
The graduates will face a job market that remains shaky, but some are OK with exploring the opportunities that come with a college degree. And those who overcame adversity or had significant achievements in college will get a chance to celebrate.
South African Goucher grad's journey included a baby
Fundiswa Fihlani, of South Africa, found her path to graduation at Goucher College has been lined with unexpected turns — from getting into the college at all to having a child in her second semester.
On May 23, her family back home will be able to watch her walk across the stage to receive a degree in special education, thanks to a professor who will hold up an iPhone with the FaceTime application. Among them will be her son, Sinekhaya, now 3.
Fihlani said she took a semester off after becoming pregnant and left her son in South Africa while she finished her studies — a difficult decision.
"Having him transformed me in my character because what I would do for him, I would do for other people on campus," said Fihlani, 27. She and the child's father are friends, she said.
Fihlani threw herself into campus life after returning to Goucher, mentoring other international students and doing sessions in peer listening.
"Even though [Goucher is] not too diverse, we make a really close-knit type community and you get shared experiences," she said. "When people hear your story they are actually listening, and that made a difference for me."
Fihlani won a scholarship to attend Goucher through an arrangement the school has with her high school in South Africa. Immediately after graduation, she will hop on a plane and return to her hometown in hopes of teaching students there with special needs.
Fihlani said her journey has shaped her philosophy on life.
"Over time I've come to realize that you might have plans, and for the most part they're not going to come out the way you want them," she said. "It's all about being patient and knowing there are always opportunities, and to pick the right one. It doesn't have to be rushed; as long as you hold out toward that goal, you'll get there."
Loyola grad was told she wouldn't live to see 21
Kasey Seymour wasn't supposed to live to see her 21st birthday, much less her college graduation.
Seymour has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease in which the body produces a thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and obstructs the pancreas, leading to life-threatening lung infections and inhibiting normal digestion. Making it through Loyola University Maryland was anything but normal.
She said that every day she takes about 30 oral antibiotics and uses three nebulizers to open her lungs. Her lungs function at about 30 percent, and just walking up stairs or across campus has been difficult.
"I could miss a week to a month [of classes] or end up in the hospital on IV antibiotics and it significantly sets me back," said Seymour, 22, of Stoneleigh in Baltimore County. "In college I've had to learn how to balance having fun with staying healthy."
Seymour said she was diagnosed with the disease at age 4, when doctors told her parents she would likely not live to see her 21st birthday. At 12, she showed up to school with an IV in her arm, frightening other students — her first indication that her life would not be normal.
When she entered Loyola to study international business, Seymour said she was "in and out of the hospital" for much of her freshman and sophomore year, had two surgeries and was forced to temporarily decrease her course load.
Since the symptoms of cystic fibrosis are hard to detect, Seymour said when she tells professors or other students about the disease, "People are shocked. Then they're like, 'Oh, that's why you're always coughing. I thought you had asthma.'"
In college, Seymour began working with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a national group that raises money to find a cure. She has helped the group raise more than $2 million and has spoken at events to raise awareness about the disease, which affects about 30,000 people in the U.S.
After graduation, Seymour will start a job Morgan Stanley, monitoring stock trades as an operations analyst.