Sandy Johnson and her son, Jeff, were juggling the demands of classes and exams, jobs and family life in pursuit of associate degrees. They also were confronting what could have been an insurmountable obstacle: homelessness.

"This has been a tough semester, a tough year," said Sandy Johnson, 56. "There are times when you just have to keep breathing. You have to keep going."

The family did keep going, and it paid off. After nearly nine months without a home of their own, the Johnsons have a new apartment in Hickory Ridge, and Sandy and Jeff both walked across the Merriweather Post Pavilion stage as part of Howard Community College's largest graduating class in the school's 42-year history on Tuesday, May 21.

"This feels really good," said Jeff Johnson, 20. "It's like, I actually made it."

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Speaking before an exuberant crowd at graduation, Board of Trustees Chairman Kevin Doyle acknowledged the struggles some HCC students face: balancing life, jobs, children and classes in pursuit of their degrees.

"It comes down to more than multi-tasking," he said. "You have our utmost respect and admiration for all the hard work that has brought you to this moment."

Jeff and Sandy Johnson may have fought harder for that moment than most of their fellow graduates. Now, with a degree in hand, Jeff Johnson hopes that "what happened can never happen again."

What happened is a long story, Sandy Johnson said — a story that starts nearly 20 years ago when her husband had his first heart attack.

Jeff Johnson was three months old; his older brother, Bobby, was 2. As the years progressed, Jim Johnson, now 61, developed heart disease, diabetes and emphysema. When he was let go from his job as a product information specialist at UNISYS in 2009, he was too sick to find another job and was denied disability. Sandy Johnson had been working at a call center at night and on weekends, but the center had closed when Jeff was a freshman at Oakland Mills High School.

The Johnsons were trapped in a situation similar to many when the economy crashed: Jim Johnson's unemployment benefits ran out, the family fell behind on the mortgage and Sandy couldn't find a full-time job with benefits or else her husband couldn't qualify for Medicaid. The family had to choose between paying the mortgage or paying for Jim Johnson's prescriptions, which total $1,000 a month.

"I was stuck," Sandy Johnson said. "We managed — with lots of luck and prayer — to hold on for almost four years. We were fortunate."

The luck ran out in July 2012, when the Johnsons lost their house in Owen Brown, where they had lived for almost 15 years.

"I think that was the worst part that I can think of — losing the house," said Jeff Johnson, a 2010 graduate of Oakland Mills. "I had been there so long, I couldn't remember any other place. I could literally walk through that house with my eyes closed and get where I needed to be. It was my safe place. The fact that it was gone ..."

Sandy Johnson picked up her son's trailing thought:

"My children walked through that house before it was even fully built," she said. "We were the first family to live there. When we lost it, I felt like I had let my kids down. I saw the pain they were going through and that ripped me apart more than anything. I mean, a mom's supposed to be able to fix everything."

Sandy Johnson fell into silence, and Jeff put his hand on her shoulder.

"We knew you were doing everything you could," he told her.

Jeff and Sandy Johnson still find it difficult to talk about the past year. After their house was sold, the family moved to a Super 8 for two weeks and then the Extended Stay America in Columbia Gateway. With the financial help of friends and money from student aid, the Johnsons were able to stay there until December.

But they ran out of money again, and the week before Christmas the Johnsons went to the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, where they learned they would likely be split up, because neither Jeff nor Bobby were minors. That wasn't an option, Sandy Johnson said, even though Jeff had been invited to live with a friend.

"I felt guilty because I wanted to be with my family," Jeff Johnson said. "We're supposed to be sticking together. It was hard."