Life is full of surprises. Some good, some not so good.
"It's not the challenge you're handed; it's how you handle it," said Ruthanne Linton, 57, who will graduate this evening from Pasco-Hernando Community College with an associate's degree in legal assisting.
Linton, a resident of Brooksville, is one of several PHCC graduates who have earned their degrees despite numerous challenges. A total of 1,169 students completed their studies at PHCC this summer and fall.
Linton had always dreamed of earning a degree. But life had other plans. She fell in love, married and had two sets of twins. Together she and her husband, Gary, owned and managed Linton Excavating for many years.
"It was a wonderful opportunity to raise our kids," she said. "We could work out of our home. It was the best of both worlds."
In 2004, after a 20-year hiatus, she returned to school and enrolled at PHCC. Her instructors inspired her in unexpected ways.
"A teacher who is passionate about a subject lights a fire," Linton said. "It's contagious."
One of Linton's instructors encouraged students to go out and explore the world. He taught his students about the Galapagos Islands.
"They're like another planet," Linton said.
She took her youngest twins to visit them in the summer of 2005. The following year, they visited the Mediterranean and saw Pompeii, Rome and Venice, Italy.
Another instructor told students to focus on getting an education rather than a degree. He encouraged them to take courses out of their comfort zones.
Linton took calculus and chemistry.
During her studies, her husband became ill with colon cancer. He died in January 2008.
With the housing market struggling, excavation work dried up, and Linton had to close the business she and her husband had built.
Each step of the way, she focused on others. Her kids needed her to be strong.
Through all if it, Linton says she's taken it one day at a time.
And with her PHCC degree in hand, she has no intention of stopping. In January, she begins at the University of South Florida to pursue her bachelor's degree in finance.
"I've been waiting for this moment for a lot of years," she said.
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Damon LeBlanc, 30, of Zephyrhills will also graduate from PHCC tonight. He, too, has been determined to get a degree despite obstacles.
LeBlanc enlisted in the Marine Corps not long after he graduated from Gaither High School in Tampa.
Life as a Marine took him from North Carolina to California and then Australia and Japan. He re-enlisted just after Sept. 11 and was in Kuwait when the ground war in Iraq started. A few miles outside Baghdad, his squadron helped set up an airfield from scratch. The airfield, a forward operating base, provided a local refueling and rearming point, said LeBlanc.
His tour in Iraq lasted seven months, and after a back injury he left the Marines at the end of his enlistment in 2004.
Back in the Tampa Bay area, LeBlanc dabbled in construction before deciding to seek a degree.
"I didn't want to be a laborer for the rest of my life," he said.
He is interested in commerce, and took all of his electives in business, including macro- and micro-economics.
He met his fiancee at PHCC, and they work full time at the company her family owns — Faithful Friends, a pet cremation business in Zephyrhills.
They plan to marry next fall.
LeBlanc will take a semester off to focus on Faithful Friends, but intends to finish his bachelor's degree in business at Saint Leo University or USF.
Tonight, his family, fiancee and friends will be there to celebrate.
"It's one more step," he said. "My ultimate goal is to have a family and be able to provide for them. That's been my goal for quite a while."
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.