More than 30,000 high school students and another 27,000 college students will receive their diplomas at Utah schools this spring.
As they don their caps and gowns, the students, surrounded by families and friends, may reflect upon the joys, sorrows and downright hard work that have brought them to this major life milestone.For many, the route to academic recognition may have been relatively smooth, with only a stumble here or there. For others, the obstacles loomed large, seemingly insurmountable at times.
In this 1998 commencement season, the Deseret News highlights the journeys of six graduates who will receive their diplomas despite significant challenges.
OREM - Darrell Wyatt can't forget Aug. 27, 1996.
He recalls the date as if he'd been asked what day he was born.
It was the day he hesitantly approached his physician for a checkup after vomiting blood at football practice. It also was the day he was whisked into the operating room to undergo surgery for testicular cancer at age 17.
"I thought it was weird the doctor told me to go to the hospital for an ultrasound," said Wyatt, who graduated from Mountain View High School Friday. "So, when I got there, my dad was already there. I thought that was weird, too, because my dad just doesn't drop work like that."
Tests had shown Wyatt had developed a malignant tumor about the size of a grapefruit in his groin. He thinks it's strange he didn't feel any pain during the spring track season or the two-a-day summer football workouts.
Unfortunately, further exams showed the tumor had metastasized. Wyatt was operated on again to retrieve the remaining parts and to remove his infected lymph nodes. He also was given the first dose of chemotherapy recommended for cancer patients.
He was out of school for five weeks while recovering from the effects of surgery and chemotherapy. Fellow teammates kept him abreast of the football season. And even some players from rival Orem High School showed up with wishes for a speedy recovery.
Teachers and fellow students would drop by the hospital and his house to give him assignments to help change the slate of "incomplete" marks for missing classes through the first term.
"At night I'd do homework. I was the youngest person on the (hospital) floor by at least 50 years," he said. "I had tons of friends come to the hospital to help me with homework or talk to me. Those hospital rooms can shrink by the minute."
Wyatt, who was also elected class president during sophomore, junior and senior years, didn't give up his jersey. By the playoffs, he was standing at the sidelines, in uniform, shouting encouragement and boosting morale.
To his relief, the chemotherapy worked. And he remains cancer-free.
"It was the answer to many prayers," he said, looking at a large golden ring bought in honor of winning the state track championship. "In six more months, I'll be declared cured."
He's decided to delay college in favor of a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And despite the remaining scars and physical chal-lenges, he says he's "grateful" for the past two years.
"When I was first told I had cancer, the doctor said I would have to come back at 7 o'clock for surgery. I just sat there," he said. "And then I went to football practice just to watch. I thought then that there are more important things in life than football and school. I thought, there's more to life than this. If you can overcome this, it makes life a lot easier." - Jeffrey P. Haney
OREM - Kolene Anderson wants to graduate from college the same year her daughter steps on the bus for the first day of school. Only Anderson's love and thoughts will be there, however.
Anderson doesn't know where her baby is. At the cusp of full-fledged adulthood, she sagely believes a heart-wrenching decision to give the baby to a loving family for adoption two years ago was the answer to a lot of prayers.
"There's no way to express how hard that was. That's probably the hardest thing I have done or will ever have to do," said Anderson, 18, who received a high school diploma from the Alpine Life and Learning Center last week. "If there is hell on Earth, that's it, but I know I did the right thing. I know it was the right thing for me, but for her, too."
She was a high school freshman sweet on a 14-year-old boy when she discovered she was pregnant. Anderson waited six months before confiding in her parents, fearful of a judgmental reaction from the tight-knit conservative Utah County community where she was reared.
"I didn't show until I was six months. I didn't show until the day I was due," she said. "The week I told my parents was horrible, but they were always supportive."
As the rumor mill started churning and her eighth-grade boyfriend spurned her, Anderson pulled out of classes at Mountain View High School and enrolled in the district's program for non-traditional students.
"I liked traditional school, but I obviously couldn't stay and didn't want to," she said. "It was hard to leave and feel like I didn't have any friends. They didn't know what was going on."
School district officials blended a program for teenage mothers into other center classes to help young women like Anderson. Pressure from peers who decide to keep their babies, whether spoken or not, can be emotionally draining, said Jennie Barber, center director.
"I was worried that people would think I didn't love her," said Anderson, who has tacked photographs of the child sent by the anonymous adoptive family to her bedroom walls. "That was far from the truth of what happened."
She wanted the baby to want for nothing. But she knew in her heart she couldn't provide a stable home, at 16, without an education, without unending struggle.
Anderson turned to a pen and paper to ease her pain. She completed packet after packet of English assignments, writing in journals and essays about her thoughts, doubts and fears.
"The baby came," she wrote in one essay. "We stayed in the hospital together for three bittersweet days, and then I said goodbye to my baby girl. She will be in my thoughts daily for the rest of my life, a constant reminder of how deep love can be. My life's pattern and hers will be intertwined forever through memories."
Anderson remained at the Alpine center to complete high school courses, determined to achieve goals she set long ago. The experience forced her to grow up in a hurry, perhaps robbing her of a last bit of teenage innocence, but didn't leave her without possibilities.
She earned a 4.0 grade point average last semester at Utah Valley State College, where she is taking classes for college credit while also completing high-school courses. She'll have nearly 30 credits toward an associate degree by the end of summer.
Anderson wants a family someday. And she plans to tell her children about their sister.
She knows adoption may not be the answer for another girl. It just felt right to her.
"It really feels like a dream sometimes. So much happened so fast it doesn't seem real," she said. "It totally changed me. For the better." - Jeffrey P. Haney
David Price knew he would eventually lose his vision.
What he hadn't counted on was that he'd lose it so quickly.
In 1992, Price was attempting to complete a master's degree in structural geology from the University of Utah.
His thesis would describe his field-based study of the structural geology of a portion of the Mineral Mountain, located northwest of Beaver.
He would walk the landscape and create a three-dimensional map that would depict the surface, attempt to predict what it looks like beneath the surface and what's occurring geologically.
"The mapping got to be tougher and tougher as I lost my vision," Price said. "Once, I hit my head on a (rock) overhang. Another time, I walked right into a tree."
He had already lost vision in his left eye at the age of 12. Physicians suspected he had developed another meningioma tumor on the optic nerve of his right eye. Typically, that type of tumor grows slowly.
"Within a matter of two weeks, my vision went from being able to drive around to having to be led around," he said.
Price shelved his master's studies and went home to Pasadena, Calif., for treatment, including two surgeries, and later rehabilitation.
"In a way, I was forced into a midlife crisis," he said.
Four years later, and having lost most of the sight in his right eye, Price returned to the U. to complete his master's degree.
Price resumed the work knowing he could never work in the field, even though he's worked years toward that end. He also earned a bachelor's degree in geology from Harvard University.
With the help of his father, a mechanical engineer, Price went about reconstructing the intricate map from memory.
"I was very fortunate in that I have a good memory and very good spatial memory. My father acted as my eyes and my hands," he said.
"It was a long process. It took a while to get that communication built up."
The two developed a common language to communicate about specific elements of the map. One area resembled the shape of the state of Indiana. Another was referred to as a dog bone. The elements served as reference points to the map, which covers about 90 square miles.
Once the map was drawn, Price went about the painstaking work of writing his thesis. To read printed material, he uses a device that projects individual letters onto a television monitor. He reads one letter at a time. He also knows Braille. Computer software converts words on the computer screen to digitized voice.
At age 34, Price will receive his master's degree in June - six years after he had planned to complete his studies.
"In retrospect, I think that was a bit optimistic," he said, softly laughing.
With family in the audience, Price will accept the degree with the assistance of his guide dog, MacDougal. MacDougal, a black Labrador, has been Price's companion for two years. They frequently walk to the U. campus from Price's home near Liberty Park.
Upon graduation, Price plans to attend graduate school to seek a master's degree in computer science. He wants to work as a programmer.
"I have a very pragmatic nature. I can't do geology. I'll have to find something else to do," he said.
John Bartley, chairman of the geology and geophysics department, describes Price's accomplishments as "absolutely extraordinary."
"It's a testament to the resources people can bring to bear when they're determined to succeed." - Marjorie Cortez
KAYSVILLE - Wendy Hinojosa has spent most of her teenage years turning her life around.
After running away from state youth centers and falling down a rocky road of drugs, the 17-year-old mother has carved another path. Hinojosa will graduate from Mountain High this summer and attend Weber State University, where she will major in pre-med and zoology.
Yet she already has encountered a pothole. A post-partum checkup revealed potentially cancerous cells.
"I'm not ready to go yet," said the self-described worrier, fidgeting with her car keys. "With everything I've been through, I don't want to give up. I'm going to fight this thing."
At age 10, she began experimenting with drugs. She ended up in a Clinton youth center in the sixth grade, ran away and was picked up a month later, only to spend Christmas in a youth facility next to a violent offender.
"I thought, I'm not that bad of a kid," she said.
Soon, she was transported to a Logan treatment center, where she learned to trust others and stop using drugs.
Hinojosa was able to build a 3.5 GPA her sophomore year. At 16, she had a job and was supporting herself, living with a girlfriend and attending Mountain High, an alternative school in the Davis School District.
Then, she discovered she was pregnant.
"I learned the harsh reality of the real world in just a few months," she said. "I didn't want to see my life go down the drain."
Hinojosa stopped smoking. She stopped eating junk food. No more soda pop. She became active at school, managing the co-ed basketball team. She made up her ninth-grade credits.
Christian Adam Lee Hinojosa was born Feb. 28. He is his mom's saving grace.
"If he wasn't here, I wouldn't be where I am. So many good things are happening in my life," Hinojosa said. "I know if I don't get something accomplished, me and my son will not go anywhere."
Hinojosa works from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. running parts for a Bountiful cooling-systems company. She then goes straight to school, comes home around 7:30 p.m. to care for Christian, who stays with his grandpa, with whom he and his mom live, or with a step-aunt during the day. Sometimes, she can play on the school's softball team when she gets a break from work and her studies.
She will attend WSU this fall, with an eye on sports medicine.
"I put my family through so much heck," she said. "Now, I've kind of got it made.
"I'm not going to let anything take me down. I don't think I was meant to quit. Nothing is too far away for me to reach." - Jennifer Toomer-Cook
James Kuay is poised to enter college 10 years later than planned.
He's thankful he can go at all.
In his war-torn African country of Sudan, higher education for Christians is unthinkable.
"I'm very happy because I can still continue to go to school," said the 29-year-old Kuay, who is getting a GED (general education development diploma) from Horizonte Instruction and Training Center of the Salt Lake City School District after seven months of instruction. He will study communications at Westminster College this fall.
"I like to stay here. I've got no war here, no fighting. I'm working, and I'll have an education for life," said the father of two, who bears horizontal scars along his forehead, a rite of passage into manhood for the Nuer tribe.
The markings also serve as tribal identification. But separation of Sudanese tribes is unfavorable to him. Rather, he wants Sudanese tribes to halt their battles and unite for independence in mineral-rich south Sudan. Mediation efforts from outside nations would help, too.
"We need the United States government to decide to put these people together and make peace," said Kuay, adding U.S. troops are stationed in Bosnia. "Why are they not in our country? They can do the same thing."
Since 1983, 1.3 million Sudanese have died in civil war over religion, mineral rights and governance. Mus-lims had entered the country and want to rule, Kuay said. Native Sudanese want to govern themselves as Christians and create a south Sudan nation, with Muslims in a northern nation. Tribes continue disputes in southern Sudan.
At age 15, Kuay fled Malakal, Sudan, to Ethiopia after witnessing his father's murder. His family went into hiding separately.
Kuay in 1992 met up with his brother and the two stayed at a refugee camp in the Kenya desert. There, masses of people sometimes go days without water, live on small rations of grain and maize and often die without medical and preventative care.
Two years later, a friend who had emigrated to the United States sponsored Kuay and his friends, John Pur, 29, and David Deng, 31, who also attend Horizonte. After filling out paperwork and passing physical exams, the trio was transported and assigned to live in Utah, where Kuay and his wife, Martha Thewat, had two daughters.
Kuay continues to try to get his 15-year-old sister to Utah.
"It's terrible to get her here," Kuay said, adding only parents or children can join refugee families in the United States, not siblings. "It's still a problem. I have no good solution."
No one knows where Kuay's mother is.
While he feels the pain of the situation, he stays strong for his family.
"I try to keep the women and children happy all the time. I tell them, `Don't think about there. Think about your education here.' " - Jennifer Toomer-Cook