When Crystal Delmonico graduated from high school, she had no desire for college. She told her guidance counselor at Pennridge High School that she thought she'd sell cars.
Instead, she struggled with mental health issues and addiction, nearly died of a drug overdose, and spent several years homeless.
But in May, Delmonico, 37, who has been sober for more than four years, graduated from Community College of Philadelphia, and now she is headed to the University of Pennsylvania.
The soon-to-be Ivy Leaguer can't believe it.
"Ten years ago, you would have read about me in a police blog or an obituary," Delmonico said. "That's the honest truth."
Delmonico is among scores of CCP students who have been accepted to Ivy League universities.
From 2005 to 2013, the college says, it sent 264 to the Ivy League - nearly all of them to Penn. Typically, three of every four CCP students finish their degrees at Penn, said Eric Furda, university dean of admissions.
It's no easy path for these students, many of them adults with children, spouses, and jobs to juggle.
Just ask Christopher Thomas, 40, a Philadelphia father of three and CCP grad, who earned his Penn degree last year. The community college prepared him well, he said, but it took him a while to adjust to Penn's heavy reading load.
"My GPA after the first semester was a 2.68," he said.
He got the knack and graduated with a 3.37 on a four-point scale. Thomas, who works in health insurance, hopes to land a teaching job or something in social services or human services.
"I'm not really discouraged," he said. "It's hard for all graduates now. I was happy I went there."
Older community college students transfer into Penn's liberal and professional studies program, which offers the same classes, faculty, and degrees as the rest of the university but admits students separately. CCP officials said they are pleased their graduates have options, including the Ivies.
"It shows we're meeting our mission," said Judith Gay, vice president for academic affairs.
Some students who start in the college's remedial classes finish strongly.
"I came here as a very doubtful student in a lot of ways," said Aminata Sy, 34, "having a 7-month-old baby, two other children, being married, and having a weak academic background. But by the time I finished my first year, I had this feeling I could do anything."
Sy had moved here from Senegal at 21 and earned her GED. After mastering remedial courses, she became a community college standout.
As with most other students interviewed, Sy said she hadn't considered transferring to Penn when she started at the school on Spring Garden Street. Her ambitions grew as her successes mounted.
Sy's children motivated her to go to college.
"I wanted to be able to answer as many of their questions as possible," she said.
While earning a 4.0 GPA, Sy wrote for the school newspaper. She's also a freelancer for the Philadelphia Tribune.
Sy plans to study international relations at Penn and hopes to help Senegal after graduation, perhaps improving education for girls or youth employment.
Delmonico hopes to do something in social work or psychology. She was 21 when she overdosed, landing her in a hospital on a ventilator. Her parents, she said, were called to say goodbye. A few years ago, she needed heart surgery, and as she was recovering, her mom persuaded her to give college a try.
"I realized I had purpose and I had meaning," said Delmonico, who had a 3.9 GPA.
Michael Novak, 39, of Society Hill, started community college as a slow route to getting a doctorate in Japanese Buddhist studies.
"I wasn't expecting to be challenged, but I was wrong," he said.
The honors program taught him not only the subjects but how to read, write, speak, listen, and excel as a student, he said.
Novak received a scholarship worth up to $40,000 a year for three years from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the only student in Pennsylvania to get it this year.
He hopes to be a professor or go into a monastery.
Wanda Klinefelter, 34, a high school dropout from Northeast Philadelphia, finished community college with a 4.0.
Her sister, a college graduate, encouraged her to go on to Penn. She will major in English.
"You've shown you can run with the best of them," Klinefelter said her sister told her.
She credited CCP with raising her expectations.
"It just opened a lot of doors," she said, "and I'm sure the doors are going to continue to open."