As thousands of Baltimore-area college students accept their diplomas this spring, many will have found themselves profoundly transformed by the experience.
Members of the Class of 2014 include a woman with cystic fibrosis who was told she would never live to see graduation. One is a South African who had her son while in college and hopes to return home to teach schoolchildren with special needs. One will fly to Kenya this summer to finish work on a clean drinking water system. Another had a turbulent childhood in foster care and spent time in jail before joining a church and enrolling in college. And one son of hard-working immigrants hopes to unionize low-wage workers.
The graduates will face a job market that remains shaky, but some are OK with exploring the opportunities that come with a college degree. And those who overcame adversity or had significant achievements in college will get a chance to celebrate.
Fundiswa Fihlani, of South Africa, found her path to graduation at Goucher College has been lined with unexpected turns — from getting into the college at all to having a child in her second semester.
On May 23, her family back home will be able to watch her walk across the stage to receive a degree in special education, thanks to a professor who will hold up an iPhone with the FaceTime application. Among them will be her son, Sinekhaya, now 3.
Fihlani said she took a semester off after becoming pregnant and left her son in South Africa while she finished her studies — a difficult decision.
"Having him transformed me in my character because what I would do for him, I would do for other people on campus," said Fihlani, 27. She and the child's father are friends, she said.
Fihlani threw herself into campus life after returning to Goucher, mentoring other international students and doing sessions in peer listening.
"Even though [Goucher is] not too diverse, we make a really close-knit type community and you get shared experiences," she said. "When people hear your story they are actually listening, and that made a difference for me."
Fihlani won a scholarship to attend Goucher through an arrangement the school has with her high school in South Africa. Immediately after graduation, she will hop on a plane and return to her hometown in hopes of teaching students there with special needs.
Fihlani said her journey has shaped her philosophy on life.
"Over time I've come to realize that you might have plans, and for the most part they're not going to come out the way you want them," she said. "It's all about being patient and knowing there are always opportunities, and to pick the right one. It doesn't have to be rushed; as long as you hold out toward that goal, you'll get there."
Kasey Seymour wasn't supposed to live to see her 21st birthday, much less her college graduation.
Seymour has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease in which the body produces a thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and obstructs the pancreas, leading to life-threatening lung infections and inhibiting normal digestion. Making it through Loyola University Maryland was anything but normal.
She said that every day she takes about 30 oral antibiotics and uses three nebulizers to open her lungs. Her lungs function at about 30 percent, and just walking up stairs or across campus has been difficult.
"I could miss a week to a month [of classes] or end up in the hospital on IV antibiotics and it significantly sets me back," said Seymour, 22, of Stoneleigh in Baltimore County. "In college I've had to learn how to balance having fun with staying healthy."
Seymour said she was diagnosed with the disease at age 4, when doctors told her parents she would likely not live to see her 21st birthday. At 12, she showed up to school with an IV in her arm, frightening other students — her first indication that her life would not be normal.
When she entered Loyola to study international business, Seymour said she was "in and out of the hospital" for much of her freshman and sophomore year, had two surgeries and was forced to temporarily decrease her course load.
Since the symptoms of cystic fibrosis are hard to detect, Seymour said when she tells professors or other students about the disease, "People are shocked. Then they're like, 'Oh, that's why you're always coughing. I thought you had asthma.'"
In college, Seymour began working with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a national group that raises money to find a cure. She has helped the group raise more than $2 million and has spoken at events to raise awareness about the disease, which affects about 30,000 people in the U.S.
After graduation, Seymour will start a job Morgan Stanley, monitoring stock trades as an operations analyst.
She said: "I've had amazing professors that have helped me extend deadlines and meet the criteria. It's been a lot of hard work, a lot of nights in, but I've had great people to help me along the way."
Shanna Green doesn't hold back on the details of her difficult childhood in foster care and the missteps she had in early adulthood, hoping her story and later success will inspire others.
The Baltimore native, who was in more than 20 foster care placements, says she experienced various forms of abuse before running away to live with a female companion at age 15. To survive, she said, she sold drugs, hung out with gang members and sold her body.
Green graduated from Morgan State University with a degree in sociology, the fruits of a long climb out of devastation. At the school, she met her fiance and has planned a wedding for October.
"I knew my whole purpose in life is to tell my story because I went through so much," said Green, 26. "A lot of people can survive it but they can't forgive it, and I forgive it."
Green, who said she was placed in foster care at age 2, felt the support she got from the foster care system was inadequate, and struggled to deal with her emotions and the trauma she experienced. She said she attempted suicide five times.
"I didn't want to listen to anyone," she said. "You couldn't give me a hug because I wouldn't receive it."
Green said she was charged with carrying an illegal gun after getting pulled over in Virginia with gang members and spent a month in jail. She experienced bouts of homelessness after leaving the woman she had moved in with.
One day, at age 19, Green was walking from a bar in Pen Lucy when something inside her told her to look up, she said. Ahead of her was Victorious Ministries International, and she later joined that church, finding new family, stability and support. She got her high school diploma from Crooked Places Made Straight Christian Academy in Philadelphia, which had its accreditation revoked last year after a Baltimore Sun investigation found foster care youths were getting diplomas after only a three-hour exam.
After some difficulty gaining admission to Morgan because of her criminal record, Green began working in college on projects to support foster youths. She met President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at a mentorship event in 2010, which she described as "huge" for her.
Now, Green wants to become a motivational speaker to help others who have been in foster care or had troubled backgrounds. She is working on a book about her life story.
"My goal was just to encourage other foster youth to come to college as well," she said. "Just because we don't have family doesn't mean we have to be alone in society."
Raul Ceballos' father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, believes in the American dream. His son is more skeptical.
Ceballos, a first-generation student who is scheduled to graduate from Towson University this week, has worked as a labor organizer and has chronicled the struggles of disenfranchised communities throughout the Baltimore region with short documentary films. Though his father ingrained in him the notion that hard work leads to great rewards in the U.S., Ceballos said he believes the economic ladder has become harder to climb over the last few decades.
"He worked really hard and it paid off for him, but meeting other people who have done the same thing, that hasn't happened for them," said Ceballos, 23, of Silver Spring. His arguments over economic mobility with his father are "great dinner table conversation," he said.
Ceballos, a transfer student from Montgomery Community College, began as an education major at Towson University before a "life changing" class in cultural anthropology led him to switch majors to that field. "It spoke to me in a way that no other class ever did," he said.
Ceballos got involved in labor organizing with Unite Here Local 7 in Baltimore and with other labor groups, organizing workers at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda — where his father has worked his way up to a managerial position — and attempting to raise awareness about the conditions for low-wage service employees at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. He said he met people working multiple jobs to make ends meet or those who felt it was impossible to break out of low-wage service work.
He participated in Towson's Anthropology by the Wire program, a summer research project in which students use digital media to study local communities from an anthropological perspective. He's made two short documentaries on labor organizing and mountaintop coal removal in West Virginia.
Plans for after graduation are still in flux, though Ceballos has thought about spending time in South America to study living conditions there and potentially working full-time as a labor organizer. He said he has also considered graduate school to continue studying anthropology.
"The idea of a union I think we need more now than ever," he said. "There was a viable economy back in the day and there was a lot of unionism, and now you define the United States by its inequality. Ultimately this is my generation and this is something that we have to deal with."
Dalton Hughes expected to become a chemical engineer and earn a Ph.D. — until an experience set him on a different path.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County student, who is set to graduate Thursday, went with another student, a professor and an engineer from Maryland Environmental Services to a village in west Kenya in January 2013. People there were getting sick from their drinking water, he said, and their group was given the task of finding low-cost, low-tech solutions.
"Once I started to interact with people and see that direct connect of the benefit from the work that I do, I was instantly hooked on that feeling of seeing the effect of my work," said Hughes, 23, of Palm Beach County, Fla.
Hughes now plans to go to medical school at Duke University, and is interested in studying the brain, which he called "the final frontier of biomedical research." He has been inspired by his mentor, professor Jennie Leach.
"To me it's the engineer's dream to go in and start figuring out how the brain processes information," he said.
In Kenya, the Engineers Without Borders team spent time gathering information about the area and testing water samples to determine which water purification systems would work best. The readings for fecal coliform and E. coli were off the charts, Hughes said. After about nine days, he returned to UMBC to begin writing grant proposals.
Hughes plans to return next month to the village to work on putting the projects into place. They will make a hole in the ground deep enough to bypass typical contaminants and teach the villagers how to use two different low-tech water purification methods. In one, water is placed in a bottle and left in the sun for at least six hours, rendering bacteria powerless. Another method involves putting a layer of gravel and a layer of sand in a bucket, creating a filter that will remove 90 percent of bacteria, he said.
Hughes said many projects like his fail because they aren't sustainable in the long term, and he said interviewing people in the village about their needs was important.
"I remember going from household to household and playing soccer with the children in the afternoon," he said. "It was just an eye-opening experience and it was what got me fired up to go to medical school."