When Edward Howard is asked if he recalls the moment he first set eyes on his future bride, his response is immediate.
"Room 1029, 10th floor," said Howard, 37, of their introduction at Harold Washington College in Chicago some 14 years ago. "I saw her in that red dress — wow! — and I wondered, 'How am I going to maintain my professional demeanor?'"
"He was the model college student," recalled his wife, Ashanti Howard, 33. "He shook my hand and looked me in the eye, which was very professional for a young guy."
If not for a fleeting smile he let slip, Ashanti added, she would not have even known she made an impression.
Both were criminal justice students. Edward was president of the college's criminal justice student association. Ashanti became the secretary. The organization gave her a chance, she said, to learn what a "solid work ethic he had" before they started dating.
At that time, marriage was "not even on the radar screen," Edward said. "But after getting to know her, I knew we were going to be together long term."
In fact, before they graduated, he proposed, even though he couldn't afford to buy a ring for a while.
"She said yes anyway," he said.
Ashanti and Edward didn't marry until 2003, the same year she had collected her bachelor's degree in education.
They decided to spend their honeymoon at Disney World, Edward said, because "we were two big, happy kids with money, because by then we had jobs."
Education has continued to be important to both of them. Ashanti earned a master's degree in reading at Chicago State University and is completing her doctorate in educational leadership at Roosevelt University. Edward earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's in social work, also at Chicago State.
As the Howards furthered their education and began establishing their careers — he as a social worker for mentally ill adults, she as an assistant school principal for a public elementary school in the Garfield-Humboldt Park community — they tried to start a family.
And here is where the Howards met the kinds of challenges that could undermine any relationship.
After infertility troubles, they endured three rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) — each experience was an emotional roller coaster for both of them.
"We got our hopes up, then it didn't work, then we'd have to start over," Ashanti said.
After the third procedure, Edward said, "No more."
The couple turned to adoption, at first considering the adoption of a foster child they knew.
"We gave it a lot of thought," Ashanti said. "But he was 9, and we were young, so it wasn't a good fit."
Adoptive parents they knew from their church encouraged them to adopt through The Cradle, an agency in Evanston. After they underwent a homestudy (which is required for adoptive parents in Illinois), their file was opened to consideration for birth parents who came to The Cradle seeking adoptive parents.
Five months later, a birth mom chose the Howards, only to change her mind and choose another couple. A second birth mom chose them while she was still pregnant. They waited in anticipation for the baby to be born, only to learn that she decided to keep her baby. A third birth mom chose them, then she, too, changed her mind.