Road less traveled leads 230 to diplomas Saturday

Helena Independent Record

by Marga Lincoln

For many in the graduating class at Helena College Saturday, the road they took to get there was not an easy one.

Among them were Dawn Oliver, who went back to school in her 40s to become a nurse; Karin Shuler a disabled veteran who is just turning 60; and James Hillman, who went back for a computer science degree after being laid off from a construction job.

Altogether 230 Helena College, University of Montana, students received certificates and degrees, 108 of them graduating with honors.

“Forty-two percent of you are the first in your families to graduate with (college) degrees,” said commencement keynote speaker U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

Tester, who grew up on a farm outside Big Sandy, originally got a degree in diesel mechanics, he said, which he used back on the farm.
At his parents’ urging to “diversify,” he continued his schooling, earning a degree in music and becoming a teacher.

After serving on the local school board and farm boards, he successfully ran for the Montana Senate and later the U.S. Senate, where he’s now serving his second term.

“Success doesn’t always come easy,” he said. And continuing one’s education is a key part of preparing for 21st century jobs.

Montana businesses are looking for qualified workers, he told them. Thirty percent said in a recent report they were having trouble finding qualified workers. Both Burlington Northern and Montana Rail Link are planning to hire, while more jobs are also opening in the Bakken.

“You must not let fear of the unknown or unfamiliar stop you from your next challenge,” he advised. “The fact is, if I let fear set in, I wouldn’t have left the farm. I wouldn’t have graduated from college. I wouldn’t have run for the school board or become a state senator. And I sure wouldn’t have become a U.S. senator.

“You set goals, and you’ve gotten far,” Tester told them. “Go out there, make your luck and do good work.”

Taking the road less traveled was the theme of the speech by Dawn Oliver, this year’s student commencement speaker.

“‘Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world,'” she said, quoting Nelson Mandela.

Her fellow graduates, she said, were not the norm.

Quoting poet Robert Frost, she said:

“‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.'”

Some, like herself, went back to school at 40 after they figured out what they wanted to do with their life.

“Wow, everyone seems so young,” she recalled of her first day. “I’m old enough to be their mother. Well, at least I’m not old enough to be their grandmother.”

With each new class, she’d ask herself, “What am I doing here?”

She wasn’t the only one who followed a nontraditional path.

Some of her fellow classmates traveled 100 miles to take classes.

Others worked two jobs and had families to care for. (In fact, 67 percent of the students work more than 20 hours a week, while taking classes.)

“If you do choose the road least traveled,” she concluded, “I do hope it makes all the difference.”

For some students, it already has.

Former construction worker Hillman, a 40-something father of 4-year-old twins, has already landed a job at the Department of Environmental Quality, where he interned for his computer science degree.

“There’s still a possibility of a bachelor’s degree down the road,” he said. “For now, I’m just happy to be graduated and back in the work force.”

Disabled veteran Shuler is hoping her associate degree, with summa cum laude honors, will help her gain an office job. Because of her disability, she couldn’t continue her job in a bakery, lifting 50 pound bags of flour. With the help of the Veterans Administration, she went back to school.

What she’s learned has already helped with the home business Woody’s Lures that her husband started.

“She’ll say, ‘Let me show you something better,'” said her proud husband, John “Woody” Shuler. “And it is.”

Among those celebrated Saturday were 32 Access to Success graduates, receiving their high school diplomas through a partnership program between Helena College and Helena School District.