On a cold February day in 2013, Matthew Cruz, then a 16-year-old Neshaminy High School sophomore, was aboard a bus on his way home from a tour of Harvard University.
The trip had been arranged by Destined for a Dream, an organization that helps disadvantaged students realize their potential. Cruz’s father had died eight months earlier, which meant paying for college would be more challenging.
Cruz was so excited about what he had seen at the prestigious Ivy League university: Its voluminous library, beautiful brick campus, and homey feel, despite its scale, left no doubt that college was the path for him, he said.
But before the bus got out of Boston, it failed to clear an underpass, causing a horrific accident that injured dozens, Cruz the most seriously. He was left paralyzed from the chest down with some paralysis in his arms and no finger movement.
Suddenly, the hurdles to a college degree got higher and harder.
But on Saturday, Cruz will be among 3,000 graduates of La Salle University, from both 2020 and 2021, who will collect associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees during two in-person ceremonies at Lincoln Financial Field.
“It’s mixed emotions,” Cruz said this week, reflecting on the strong relationships he had at La Salle, “a little relief, a bit sad. It’s also exciting because you’re here now, entering the world.”
Cruz is one of a number of La Salle graduates who overcame difficulties or juggled enormous responsibilities — in some cases made even harder by the pandemic — to earn a college degree.
One student, who overcame cancer earlier in her life, worked multiple jobs and raised a child while taking night classes. Another returned to school to get a degree while raising four children, two of them adopted, with her husband and carrying a baby for another couple to earn money to help pay for her education. Another was sexually assaulted in her native Liberia before age 10 and in the United States faced challenges, including a mental health crisis. Another had to take a year off when she couldn’t pay her fall semester bill but worked hard to earn money in the interim and returned.
They offer a glimpse into the challenges that some graduates at schools throughout the region face. As colleges hold commencement this month, their stories illustrate why the ceremonies, which many schools held virtually last year, are such an important rite of passage.
La Salle’s stage for its ceremonies will stretch from 35-yard line to 35-yard line, but for students like these, receiving that degree may feel like a triumphant end zone dance.
“Most times, it’s the proudest moment of their lives,” said Steven Siconolfi, La Salle’s interim provost.
Cruz, now 24, of Langhorne, has no memory of the crash, which meant months of recovery and caused him to miss the rest of his high school sophomore year. When he returned to school, he had to learn not just his course material but how to navigate with new limitations. It meant developing a “dual brain” for problem-solving, he said.
“That experience wasn’t great, but it was good,” he said. “It fostered that motivation to be like, OK, let’s see if I can actually do this.”
He didn’t figure out a good note-taking system until a couple of years ago when he found he could use his knuckles to type by strengthening certain muscles in his wrists and forearms.
His La Salle professors were extremely helpful and nurtured his career interest, he said. He plans to go on for his doctorate in evolutionary biology and ecology.
Other students also cited close-knit relationships with professors and La Salle’s small class sizes as critical to their success.
“My professors supported me all the time, even if I was late with assignments,” said Albania Luciano-Wilmo, 30, who is getting her bachelor’s in social work.
They understood Luciano-Wilmo, a native of the Dominican Republic who came to America at 18, was juggling a lot. At one time, she worked three jobs as a home health aide during the day and an Uber driver and custodian at night, still fitting in classwork and raising her son, Isaac, now 8.
Her motivation, she said, was her son.
“I would be his example for life,” said Luciano-Wilmo, who plans to pursue her master’s in social work.
Getting into La Salle wasn’t easy. She failed the entrance exam in 2015 and applied again the following year.
Now, she’s graduating summa cum laude.
Rachel McMahon, 35, of Abington, is getting her master’s degree in speech language pathology with a 4.0 GPA. She had been a social worker but wanted to earn more money and still apply her social-work skills.
While taking classes, she also was mom to four children, 16, 15, 13, and 5, all learning at home during the pandemic. She couldn’t have done it without her mother, Glynnis Gradwell, a retired Philadelphia schoolteacher, who held “grandma school” every day for McMahon’s 5-year-old.
There were also financial hurdles. McMahon quit her job to attend school full time. To help fund her schooling amid the pandemic, she became a “gestational carrier” for another couple who wanted to start a family. The baby is due in June.
“It was something I could do to help another family, but at the same time it also helped me and my family,” she said.
Grace Clarke, 30, is earning a master’s in public health. She got her bachelor’s in nursing from La Salle in 2014.
Clarke’s journey has been particularly painful. She was sexually assaulted in Liberia as a young child. Her family struggled financially, meaning they sometimes lacked basic necessities such as feminine hygiene products.
She came to the United States when she was 10. At 16, she became pregnant, moved to Philadelphia and ended up in foster care. She suffered a mental health breakdown that landed her in a treatment facility for six months.
But she got an academic scholarship to La Salle and after graduation worked as a clinical specialist. Her experiences and own recovery led her to want a career in public health, she said.
She recently moved to North Dakota with her daughter, 14, and is expecting a baby. With her new degree, she’s got big plans. She and her sister started a nonprofit in Liberia in 2019 to help young women with feminine hygiene resources and education. She hopes to expand to a clinic, focusing on women’s health and sexual-assault awareness.
“I finally found my common ground, my happy place,” she said.
At age 7, Sephora Dikabou moved to the United States from the Republic of Congo. She lived in a house with her mother and aunts, who worked lower-income jobs to pay bills. Her father joined the family seven years later.
She had to learn English and make her way through Baltimore schools. All she knew for sure is she wanted to graduate from college as thanks to her parents for bringing her to America.
“I wanted my parents to know that their sacrifice wasn’t in vain,” said Dikabou, 23.
La Salle offered her good financial aid, but even so, she had to take a year off because she couldn’t pay the bill after fall semester freshman year. For many students, a break like that becomes a permanent derailment.
But Dikabou worked “double overtime” at an Applebee’s and returned after a year to La Salle, where she learned about social justice and saw her earlier life through a new lens.
She will get her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and sociology and then plans to go to law school and pursue a career helping immigrant families.
“If I learned anything over my past four years of college, it’s that hope is really underrated,” she said. “... You have to have hope.”