NEW PORT RICHEY — It's been a long and winding road for Richard Sikes, one that's not been short of challenges and adversity.
In 1996, Sikes was a high school dropout who had few future prospects. But he went to night school and passed the GED test — then shocked his family by enlisting in the Army.
He served in Iraq for a year before being medically discharged for an injury from basic training. And just when he was embarking on another chapter as college student, Sikes found himself dealing with the devastating diagnosis of a brain tumor.
It literally stopped him in his tracks. But not for long.
Tonight, Sikes, who is now 31 and living in Port Richey, will proudly don his first cap and gown to collect his associate of arts degree at Pasco-Hernando Community College's winter commencement ceremony. He will be one of 300 honored and among nearly 900 who have earned a certificate of completion or two-year degree during the summer and winter semesters.
"I'm very proud of him," said his mom, Yolanda Berry. "If you had told me he would be doing this 10 years ago, I would have laughed at you because he was going nowhere."
Now, said Sikes, "I'll be the first person in my family to graduate from college."
Sikes credits his turnaround to his support from friends and family — and his own change in attitude.
"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them," he said.
The biggest challenge came last year, when doctors told Sikes he had a tumor the size of a quarter on his pituitary gland.
"It was pretty difficult at first to even really comprehend what it meant," Sikes said. "It was causing problems visually and mentally with my thought process with the pressure on my brain. It was affecting my hormones."
Fortunately, the tumor was benign, though the illness put a damper on Sikes' plans to graduate early. Even so, he made a remarkable recovery after the tumor was removed Oct. 4 at James A. Haley VA Medical Center. He was back in school Jan. 5.
"He had to drop out that semester but he made a fabulous recovery," said his mom. "He went back to school and it's been awards for this, awards for that ever since. It's been fabulous."
Sikes was named to the National Dean's List and was inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. He also traveled to Europe to study student diplomacy and international relations through the Scholar Laureate Program after a good friend from the Masonic Lodge helped pay his expenses.
Now Sikes plans to take a semester off to work full time to help his mom financially while she takes some college courses at PHCC. Eventually, he says, he plans to return to school, perhaps in Florida or maybe even at his dream school: the University of North Carolina.
"I grew up in North Carolina. That's pretty much where I was raised," he said. "I have a real special connection to North Carolina."
As for the more distant future, Sikes said he's contemplating becoming a teacher.
"I'm lucky — I'm blessed," he said. "And I'm fortunate because I have gone through a lot of things and overcome a lot of obstacles. For me, personally, every challenge that I meet now is an opportunity to better myself. I'm very happy where I'm at but I'm not completely satisfied. I know I can do better and that's what I'm going to strive for — that's my goal."