Danielle Allison likes challenges.
The Columbia mother was raised in poverty, on government assistance, in Atlantic City, N.J. The first in her family to attend college, she dropped out after only a few semesters. At 23, she joined the military, a woman in the mostly male-driven field of airplane mechanics.
And this week, at 41, she graduated from Howard Community College with an Associate of the Arts in General Studies with honors, focusing on international affairs.
Allison was one of this year's speakers at HCC's commencement, held Tuesday at Merriweather Post Pavilion. She spoke to a crowd of her peers — 1,076 graduates, the largest in the college's history — at a college that, coincidentally, has been around as long as Allison.
"Some of you in the audience may see a typical graduating class before you," Allison said Tuesday. "I ask you to look again, because what I see is anything but typical.
"I see a class full of amazing success stories: single parents who worked full time while going to school, students who struggled in high school then came here and thrived, military veterans, getting ready to re-enter the work force, first-generation students, non-traditional students and the disadvantaged, finding their way, underdogs that some counted out and overlooked.
"Everyone here has surmounted their difficulties to be here today. ... We know how to succeed in a challenging environment, to beat the odds and overcome obstacles."
While many of her classmates overcame obstacles, few faced as many challenges as Allison.
Into the Air Force
"Life is what it is," Allison said in an interview last week. "My mother dropped out in the 10th grade; she didn't even know how to do her taxes. I was the one who had to figure out how to apply for college, fill out financial aid forms. ... As a first-generation college student, I lost my way. I didn't know how to do this stuff."
Allison attended the Maryland Institute College of Art, but left after a semester because she had filed financial aid forms incorrectly. She stayed in Baltimore, working and saving money, going back to MICA only to leave again.
"How can you be successful in college, when you have no one around you who has?" Allison said.
She went back to Atlantic City when she was 23, "tail between her legs," she said, and on a whim, walked into aU.S. Armyrecruiting office.
"It made sense," she said. "They'll train you, you'll be able to pick up your life and do something with it, instead of thinking you couldn't make it work."
Allison had to take an aptitude test to determine her strengths; of four sections, she aced three. The only one she did less-than-perfectly on — but still received a high score — was mechanics.
"As soon as I saw that, I thought, 'I have to do that,'" Allison said. "I could do whatever I wanted, all the branches were saying they wanted me, and I chose the Air Force, and I chose to be a mechanic because I had the most to learn there."
Also appealing to Allison was the fact that mechanics is a male-dominated field.
"I'm drawn to challenges, even if I don't want to be," she said. "I saw this as 'I need to learn, I can improve on something, I can challenge the system.' I'm very much about that, that it doesn't have to be done this way, and don't tell me what I can and cannot be."
As C141 Crew Chief — a head Air Force mechanic — at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., Allison, a senior airman, met her husband, William. The two were married within two months, and 11 months later, their daughter Siena was born. Now, Siena is 15 and a sophomore at Hammond High School, and Allison and her husband have been married 16 years.
Focus on family
While still stationed in Washington, Allison and her husband had to make some choices about their lives, and who would take care of Siena if one or both of them were deployed; Allison chose to leave the Air Force.
"I had proved my point," she said. "I did it. I learned about mechanics, I knew I could succeed in that environment, and once you have a family, your priorities shift. Now, I had the opportunity to make sure this amazing little person I'd brought into the world would be cared for, and that became my main focus.
"I thought, I'm going to do the housewife thing now, and I'm going to do it justice. ... I'm going to do this right, because my own upbringing wasn't that great."
The family moved; William, a master sergeant, was transferred to South Carolina in 2002, and then toFt. Meadein 2005. As Siena grew up and became more independent, Allison realized it was time for her to go back to school.
"My life had been so much about my husband and my daughter," Allison said. "I always wanted to go back, wanted to contribute to society, but as long as my family was the focus, I kept putting it off. Once my daughter was older, I realized I could focus on myself if I wanted."
Allison enrolled in HCC in the fall of 2008; several months later, William was deployed to South Korea for a year. Allison took her time in getting her degree, she said, because her family is still a main focus for her.
The choice to go into international affairs was gradual, Allison said, and perhaps fitting. As an art student at MICA, she used her heart. As a mechanic, she used her hands. Now, she wants to use her head. Allison said she hopes to further her education and eventually become an intelligence or foreign policy analyst.
"This is viable for the area, and I had to find out what else I was good at," Allison said. "I knew I was good at art, but what else could I challenge myself with? What haven't I done yet? This was the next challenge."
Allison graduated from HCC with a 3.9 GPA, a member of Phi Theta Kappa — the national honor society for community colleges — and a founding member of HCC's Student Veteran's Group. She said she has no plans to stop challenging herself.
That was a common theme among HCC's graduation speakers Tuesday.
"The homework assignment for the rest of your, should you choose to accept it, is: Don't be a visitor on the Planet Earth," Helen Mitchell, commencement speaker and HCC professor of philosophy and director of women's studies, told the graduates. "Stay curious, ask questions about everything ... as you learn new things, weave them into the tapestry of wisdom and knowledge you already have."
It's advice Allison has already taken to heart.
"I love knowledge," she said last week. "I love learning how things work. I love to feel like I know a little bit more about the world than I did."