Four years ago, Ali Derassouyan entered the University of Pennsylvania intent on becoming a cardiologist, a childhood dream motivated by a grandfather who had a heart ailment and five doctors in her extended family, including two cardiologists.
That vision blew up sophomore year when she took chemistry and physics and found herself in the struggle of her life.
"I realized that's not what I could see myself doing for the rest of my life," said Ali, 21, a Nazareth Academy High School graduate from Langhorne. "That was kind of hard."
Ali graduated from Penn last week with a degree in criminology and a new dream: to work for the FBI.
For Ali and six other high school seniors whom The Inquirer profiled in a 2008-09 series on their college quest, university life proved an intrinsic search into self, where they would discover new career ambitions, broker a social network, and learn resilience.
Olympic dreams were dashed for a high school athlete from Ocean City, N.J., who nonetheless, went on to hit a running milestone achieved by few. An inner-city Philadelphia student wouldn't make it to college at all but found new opportunity in the Navy.
Twins from Cherry Hill would distinguish themselves in Rutgers-Camden's fine arts department, after one gave up on careers in architecture and math and the other realized he'd rather major in music than education.
A shy teen from William Penn Charter also would find her place at Penn and come out of her shell in a big way, venturing to Spain for a semester and to Los Angeles for an internship and then graduating magna cum laude.
And the daughter of a college admissions specialist lived her dream of studying in Italy for a semester and reveled in the nation's capital, hoping now to find a career there.
Three of the seven are graduating this spring. Three are set to finish next year. Two transferred to new schools along the way. Most are interested in graduate school but not all right away. They've all earned a GPA of 3.0 or higher and have a string of extracurricular activities.
None faces a mound of debt. They've paid for college aided by parents, scholarships, and work studies.
Each offers advice to future collegians.
"The most important thing," Ali said, "is to be happy and to enjoy the ride."
Here are their journeys.
An affordable education
Sam and Cooper Gorelick, the twins from Cherry Hill who hail from a family of six children, were looking for a high-quality, economical education - and they found it at Rutgers-Camden.
"I'm extremely happy," Sam said. "If I had to make that decision again, I would make it every single time."
Both Gorelicks, 22, graduates of Cherry Hill High School West, are on track to graduate next year, each with little more than $5,000 in debt, compared with $25,000 for the average U.S. graduate. To save money, they lived at home and commuted together.
Cooper, the brother with the ponytail, started at Camden County College but left after one semester. He enrolled at Rutgers-Camden and "it was like I fit here."
He abandoned plans to become an architect and changed majors several times, dropping math and then applied math.
Geometry turned him off: "I got in there the first day, sat down, listened to the whole lecture, walked out and said, 'I'm done.' "
He's a theater major with a passion for playwriting, but has been involved in every aspect of the theater department, sometimes playing more than one role in a production.
"We did The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. I played Jesus Christ . . ., but I also played a bailiff. I had to run up and down a flight of stairs for three straight hours. Oh my God, I was in such good shape after that semester!"
Cooper saw one of his plays performed at the Region II Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
Cooper, who has a 3.9 GPA, hopes to go on to graduate school for playwriting, but has stage management as a backup.
Sam also changed career plans. He started out in the teacher-preparation program but didn't like the courses and switched to music theory.
Now he wants to be a college professor.
Sam could have finished this year but delayed his graduation with the hope of again trying to get into graduate school. He was turned down this year by competitive programs at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple.
Sam has worked as assistant director of the madrigal ensemble. The acting fine arts department chair, Julianne Baird, said he's the best assistant she's had in 25 years.
His musical studies took him to Germany freshman year and Sweden last summer on an independent study to view the A Cappella music festival. He played two sizable roles in university-produced operas with his rare voice part - he's a countertenor.
With a 3.8 GPA, he also earned the distinction of "tutor of the year," the first music-theory undergraduate to win at Rutgers-Camden.
He beat Cooper for Rutgers-Camden's Martin Dillon award for excellence in the arts for two years.
"It's a big rivalry," Sam said.
"Doesn't bother me," Cooper quipped.
Cooper hopes to stay in Philadelphia or go to New York after graduation. Sam wants to stay local.
"I could never leave the cheesesteak," Sam said.
A college experience according to plan
Samantha DiFeliciantonio graduated Sunday from George Washington University with a bachelor's degree in international affairs, with a concentration in international economics and a double minor in journalism/mass communication and history. As a student at Conestoga High School in Chester County, she was so sure she wanted to attend George Washington that she applied early decision.
"I loved it. I never thought about transferring," she said.
For her search, she had the advantage of being the daughter of an expert on the topic, Rick DiFeliciantonio, admissions head at Ursinus College.
In high school, Samantha, 22, dreamed of studying in Italy. Second semester junior year, she lived in Florence and learned Italian: "I traveled to eight countries and had the best time ever!"
She joined Pi Beta Phi sorority and also became a campus tour guide, touting the advantage of a George Washington education for prospective students: "With my dad working in admissions, I always thought it was cool."
George Washington immerses students in capital life: She interned at the Treasury Department and the Association of American Colleges and Universities in communications and public engagement.
The school hosts its own inaugural ball every four years to coincide with the presidential celebration. Students and staff went to the Mall to hear President Obama, then gathered at an upscale hotel.
She hopes to remain in Washington and find a job: "I just fell in love with the city."
A new path
Brett Johnson, a promising middle-distance runner from Ocean City High School, N.J., hit one of his biggest goals this year - he broke a four-minute mile. But it didn't happen at the University of Virginia, where Brett started. He transferred in January to the University of Oregon after a disappointing turn of events.
Virginia was a tough adjustment from the start.
"I had a lot of expectations on myself," said Brett, 22. "I thought I'd be able to come in and pick up right where I left off as a high school standout. But I was running against guys a whole lot better than I was."
Brett also discovered he had to put more time into his studies than he planned and wasn't sure on a major but picked education because he was required to under NCAA rules. He later switched to behavioral psychology, which he figured he could adopt without a difficult adjustment.
"Running was at the forefront of what I wanted to do," he said.
With time, he adjusted to the academics and the running competition - and won at the Penn Relays his sophomore year. But junior year proved the most difficult time of his life. Jason Vigilante, the coach that recruited him, resigned.
"Everything in my world," Brett said, "gets turned upside down."
Brett didn't make the Olympic trials as he had hoped. And his roommate, best friend, and running rival, Robby Andrews, turned pro with Adidas.
Brett didn't gel with the new coaching staff, and they ultimately decided to part ways. He could have finished his education at Virginia on a free ride but wanted to run. He is paying some tuition and room and board at Oregon. Annual tuition and room and board for an out-of-state student is about $39,000.
Also his junior year, he was in a serious moped accident, which changed his outlook. He was going 45 miles an hour when a car T-boned him. He flew 25 feet and landed head first on asphalt. He doesn't doubt he would have died without a helmet - a chilling fact because he had been riding earlier that day without one.
Brett was ready for a change. He connected with the Oregon coach and started there in January.
"It's been awesome," he said. "Obviously, as a runner and a miler, your biggest goal is to break a four-minute mile. The fourth race, I broke four. . . . Honestly, I think I rededicated myself."
He will graduate next March.
Brett hopes to get a professional contract so he can run after graduation. Since his moped accident, however, he takes things one day at a time.
"Every day, I come to practice, I'm excited," he said. "It's a day I get to practice."
Into the Navy instead
Walter Jonathan Pinder, a Philadelphia public school student, didn't go to college. His life uprooted during his senior year and with no funds to afford college, he joined the Navy and is stationed at the Mayport base in Jacksonville, Fla.
While his dream of college wasn't realized, he said the Navy opened up new opportunity.
"I've learned a lot and met a lot of amazing people, both military and civilian," he said. "It's given me a great outlook on life."
His life also took on new meaning since having a son, 9-month-old Jaylin: "Becoming a father, you realize what kind of person you would want your child to be."
Walter, 23, was a promising Overbrook High student, avid poet, and drum line participant, who marveled when he received a recruitment pitch from Harvard, which noticed his verbal score on the SAT. One of six siblings, he spent his first five years in foster care, then switched schools 11 times as his family moved around. During high school, he lived with his uncle, after his father died and his mother left.
During senior year, Walter was attacked by a group of teens and suffered stab wounds and a fractured eye socket. He fled the state and finished high school at an undisclosed location, ultimately receiving his diploma from Overbrook.
Walter said he had been associating with gang members and wanted to end that association. They beat him because of it, he said.
While he wishes he had done some things differently, he has no regrets: "The best thing we can do is remember and learn from them."
Walter hopes to pursue a college degree in business and one day open his own music/restaurant joint.
This summer, Walter will leave for his first overseas deployment to "see the world," as he had hoped.
A change of plans
Adjusting to Penn proved challenging for Ali Derassouyan, 21, who aced high school.
"It was a shock with how difficult the curriculum was," she said. "I was basically surrounded by people who were top 10 in their class. The competition was a little overwhelming at times."
Ali had to let go of the dream she had since fourth grade - to be a cardiologist. She got lower than an A for the first time, and questioned: "Am I meant to be here?"
An adviser assured her that she was accepted to Penn for a lot of reasons and would find her way.
And she did.
During sophomore year, she took a class on the biological and psychological aspects of crime and was intrigued. With strong interest in psychology and a desire to help people, she switched her major to criminology and now dreams of working for the FBI in the behavioral-analysis unit. Think Criminal Minds, the TV show.
"I'm actually obsessed with that," she said.
Since switching majors, she's enjoyed every class.
She also helped with new student orientation, served as a tour guide, and became business manager for Strictly Funk, a hip-hop jazz dance troupe on campus that became her primary social group.
Last summer, she interned at the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, which works to end the prosecution and incarceration of youth in the adult system. She talked to prisoners and transcribed their stories and helped with communications and media.
Ali will stay at Penn this summer working in admissions and applying for jobs for the fall.
Her only regret is not appreciating having been accepted to Penn early on. She had been disappointed that she had been wait-listed at her dream school, Cornell.
"That was the stupidest thing I could have done," Ali said, urging others not to waste that energy.
Penn, she said, opened the world to her: "Just meeting people, seeing different cultures, everything Penn has to offer. There's no limit to what you can get involved in."
A social blossoming
When Kirby Dixon walked onto Penn's campus, it felt large and a bit intimidating: "It was kind of nerve-racking," Kirby, 22, said.
It helped that she started in a prefreshman summer program with about 100 other students.
Four years later, the William Penn Charter graduate speaks and walks with confidence. Penn's competitiveness - yet embracing culture - was a perfect fit.
"I'm a lot more outspoken than I was in high school. I've really come out of my shell," she said.
When she started, she wasn't sure of a career. She ruled out the sciences after spending her first summer interning at a stem-cell research lab. She had a similar experience the next summer in a government relations job at the Delaware River Port Authority.
With a passion for the arts, she became a visual-studies major, a decision affirmed through an internship at Nickelodeon in Los Angeles last summer. She was a production assistant for Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, a computer-animated TV series based on the Kung Fu Panda films.
"It was absolutely incredible," Kirby said, now aspiring to a career in art direction. "That's the kind of company I would definitely want to work for."
The internship was one of many experiences that helped her to grow independently, she said.
"I had never been to L.A. I didn't know where I was going to live. I knew no one out there. But because of the opportunity, I went out on a limb. I found the family that I lived with through craigslist. And I had the time of my life."
She studied in Spain her junior year and joined several African American groups on campus, including the Onyx Senior Honor Society and Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically black sorority. She also does layout and design for the Little Black Book, a literary publication for minority students on campus.
Kirby graduated with honors, with about 3.7 GPA, and won a top award for her senior thesis, an art installation with photography and video on black identity and double consciousness.
She's willing to go wherever she finds a job.
"I'm excited," she said. "The future for me is very undetermined. At the same time, . . . I'm very prepared for it."
One thing she would do differently is try out for a sport. She was a high-jumper and long-jumper in high school but found collegiate sports too daunting.
Her advice to others?
"Take chances. If you're scared, that's probably a good thing," she said. "College is that time for you to make mistakes. I don't think I could ever have imagined the metamorphosis I had as a person and how I've changed."