NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco's real estate boom had Kevin Horan and his family living the good life.
They had a bustling business with several employees selling hundreds of properties a year. The Horan Realty Group was the cream of Pasco's real estate crop.
But the housing market bust in recent years sent the business into a free fall. Gone were the vacation homes along with the life the Horans knew.
So when Horan, 55, stood on stage Tuesday as the honored student speaker at Pasco-Hernando Community College's graduation ceremony, he could hardly contain his excitement. After years of hitting the books, he had finally obtained his associate of science degree in nursing and was ready to tackle a new career.
"We made it!" he told a crowd of hundreds, to hoots and hollers from his fellow students.
Horan is one of more than 1,200 summer and fall semester graduates, hundreds of whom walked across the stage Tuesday during morning and afternoon graduation ceremonies at PHCC's New Port Richey campus.
Horan recalled the feeling of despair when the real estate market tanked, crippling his business.
"The rug was completely pulled out from under us," he told the Times. "It was like someone came in and snipped our phone lines overnight. It went that dead."
Horan said his wife, Susan, opened a bridal dress business in New Port Richey, but that also struggled in a down economy. But the couple and their three children kept fighting to get by, and Horan hatched a new plan.
From his days volunteering in local hospitals, Horan had always been interested in the medical field. He began chatting with nurses about their jobs and liked the idea of being patients' primary caregiver.
Horan started taking classes at PHCC, but had to start from scratch, having none of the prerequisite credits under his belt. Finally, after a year and a half, he applied to the nursing school.
"It was not an easy thing by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "But they accepted me, which I was so happy for because I think they only accept around 16 percent of the applicants to the nursing program."
Horan described his struggle to get through school in his speech Tuesday, but also the sense of accomplishment not letting life's difficulties defeat him.
"When faced with an obstacle, go around it, go over it, or go under it. But never let it stop you," he said. "Always remember, everything is within your grasp if you really want it."
Horan's story is a familiar one at PHCC. The floundering economy has driven unemployed people back to school to develop new career skills, said PHCC spokeswoman Lucy Miller.
Enrollment at PHCC increased 7 percent from the fall 2009 semester to this fall, and enrollment for spring 2011 is 12 percent higher than last spring, she said.
"The economy is always a factor historically in people going back to school when they are out of work suddenly," Miller said. "And it is a wise idea, going back to school. The economy will eventually recover and these students will have the skills to be competitive."
Horan said at his age he was concerned about fitting in with younger students, and he became known as "grandpa" in many of his classes. But he found he fit right in with his fellow students because they sought the same goal. Horan kept up a minimum 3.25 grade point average and qualified to graduate a Phi Theta Kappa member.
At times, he told the crowd, "It was all I could do to keep up."
But he said his blood type reminded him what to do: