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It was only a few months ago that Allen Russell and his daughter, Niesha, realized that they would graduate from college on the same day.

"She said, 'I'm going to be walking in June,'" Allen Russell said. "And I said, 'Me too.'"

Allen Russell, 53, was to leave yesterday's University of Phoenix commencement ceremony at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore with an undergraduate degree in business management, while his daughter, 27, was to accept a graduate-level diploma in business administration.

It's not surprising that father and daughter were to be among the 500 or so graduates taking part in the ceremonies.

Niesha Russell, who majored in premedicine at Xavier University in New Orleans, was inspired to pursue a business degree from Phoenix after her parents started taking courses there.

And Phoenix, with its combination of online classes and weekend and evening campus courses, is tailored for students who have full-time jobs, as both Russells do.

A school tradition

"This is our fifth graduation ceremony, and each year we've had - I think one year it was a mother and a daughter - but we have had each of the years, a parent and a child," said Timothy Moscato, director of the Maryland campus. "We've had siblings almost every year. It is really neat to see."

When Niesha Russell saw the courses her parents were taking, she decided that they were right for her, too.

"I was like, 'Oh that sounds interesting,'" said Niesha Russell, who lives in Baltimore. Despite her premed degree, she already knew she didn't want to be a doctor. Instead, she'd like to open her own nursing and adult day care facility, she said. She took her classes while working as a geriatric nursing assistant at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center in Baltimore and also managing a shoe store, she said.

Her next stop is the master's program at University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore, which she plans to start in 2006, she said.

Although Niesha Russell grew up in a household that valued higher education, her father originally didn't even consider college after graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in Reidsville, N.C.

"Out of high school I really didn't think about [college]," said Allen Russell, who lives in Aberdeen. "At the time I never gave too much thought about that. I was more concerned about getting a job."

He moved to Baltimore to work at Bethlehem Steel, and was drafted after a year, serving in the military in Germany from 1971 to 1973. The next year he returned to Baltimore and married a fellow Beth Steel worker.

The Russells raised three daughters, putting them all through college.

Allen Russell's wife, JoAnn, stayed at Bethlehem Steel, where she became an information technology assistant; he took a job with MedStar Health in 1986 and is now director of operations for the data center in Silver Spring.

'On the back burner'

"In the beginning, we got married and everything and we kind of put education off," Allen Russell said. Over the years, he and his wife took various courses, but the focus was always on their daughters.

The parents knew that their children would go to college.

"That was without a doubt," Allen Russell said. Daughter Danielle, now 26, went to the University of South Carolina. Daughter Kimberly, 34, earned a degree in business administration from Strayer University.

As for the father: "We had hoped one day I would, but when you're raising a family you kind of put those things on the back burner," he said.

Once the kids were out of the house, though, JoAnn and Allen Russell enrolled at Phoenix and began earning their business degrees. "Now that we have an empty nest, we decided to go back," Allen Russell said.

For JoAnn Russell, who already had a certificate for Web development design, the degree was important because she knew that Bethlehem Steel would close.

"I kind of saw the handwriting on the wall, so I started going to school," she said. She graduated a year ago and is currently job-hunting.

For Allen Russell, the degree is a way to advance his career.

"I started really seeing over the years that I need that college education, just to have the papers if nothing else," he said. "I tell you, when you're competing today, if you don't have the degree, it's rough."

Although Phoenix offers online courses, he preferred to take classes at the Columbia campus.

"I felt, for me, it was better to have the classroom setting," he said. "I learn better that way."

Sharing the hard work

Another advantage to being on campus was that sometimes he would run into his daughter, who had started the graduate program.

"Matter of fact," he said, "I got her one night to kind of tutor us."

But Niesha Russell insists her parents were the ones doing the tutoring. "They actually helped me out in my classes because they were taking similar classes," she said.

They may disagree on who helped whom, but both graduates say they worked hard for their degrees.

"Actually, Phoenix was really, really tough," Niesha Russell said.

"It was grueling," her father agreed.

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