It was a stressful day in August when Melinda "Mindy" Thackrah, her boyfriend and daughter, lugged suitcases into the dorm room at New College in Sarasota. As she waited for a cart, Thackrah worked hard to get her nerves under control. What would the new roommates be like? And how would they react when they found out she was the one moving into their dorm room, not her 19-year-old daughter, Sydney. Yes, at 41, Thackrah, was going off to college. The Largo resident wants to get a master's degree and become a librarian. But on this day she was filled with self-doubt. "It was nerve wracking, because I knew that people's responses and reactions would be varied," she said. "I often worry that some people will consider that such an education as this will be wasted on someone of my advanced years." That hot and sticky afternoon, a young student came up to meet them and assumed Sydney was one of the new kids on campus. When Thackrah told her she was the student, the teenager replied, "That's cool, you'll be fine as long as you're not living on campus."
Mindy Thackrah was an 11th-grader when she dropped out of Dunedin High.
"I was dying to break away from my parents' strict upbringing; I thought I knew more than they did," she said.
So she moved to Tallahassee to live with her aunt and got "a glamorous job at Taco Bell."
Five years later at age 21, Thackrah moved back to Pinellas County and had Sydney. The father was a man from Scotland who abused her, she said.
"At that point, I decided the fun and games were over," she said.
So she learned how to weld at a Pinellas Technical Education Center.
She became a supervisor for B & L Cremation Systems in Largo, where she helped build and repair crematories for humans and animals.
"Yep, we made ovens," she said.
On March 11, 2005, she was riding a motorcycle and headed for a fun day at the beach when a woman made a left-hand turn in front of her.
"Witnesses said I flew 36 feet into the air, as high as the street lights," she said. "I landed all crumpled up by a curb."
She was flown to Bayfront Medical Center, where doctors pumped 22 units of blood into her body and spent 10 hours trying to stitch her back together. Later, she'd have more operations to repair both arms and a shattered pelvis. She also suffered nerve damage to her left hand.
"They told my mom I may never walk again or if I did, I might waddle like a duck," she said.
• • •
Thackrah spent 11 weeks in the hospital. After a year of physical therapy, she was able to walk with a normal gait.
But she was still broken inside.
With only the use of her thumb and forefinger on her left hand, her career as a welder was over.
"I mourned the loss of a job that I loved and was really good at," she said.
She was depressed, living off her 401k, suffering from chronic pain and uninsured.
At 38, she'd have to find a way to rebuild her life from scratch.
• • •
In the fall of 2006, she began a life-changing adventure at St. Petersburg College.
A placement test landed her in the Honors Interdisciplinary Studies program: a perfect antidote for all her problems.
In the Honors College, she became of a member Phi Theta Kappa and was selected to be on the All-Florida academic team.
She was chosen by her peers to be president of the Honors College Student Consortium, eventually receiving the 2008 SPC Honors College Scholar of the Year award. In 2009, she was bestowed the college's highest honor for two-year students, the Apollo Award.
"She is legendary because she received so many different kinds of awards," said Nadia Yevstigneyeva, assistant director of the Honors College. "And she deserves them all."
Thackrah threw herself into volunteer work, too — from being a bell ringer for the Salvation Army last Christmas to becoming student coordinator for the Southern Regional Honors Council Conference. Last spring, she was part of the Honors College effort to install two butterfly gardens on Earth Day.
But even with all the academic awards and honors, there was a void. Thackrah missed working with her hands.
Ceramics classes at the college would eventually fill that need.
She learned some adaptive techniques and has created a variety of beautiful vases, bowls and cups.
This summer, she attended the renowned Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine on a full scholarship.
For 17 months, Thackrah worked in the Clearwater campus library, which helped inspire her future career goals.
Recently, she visited the campus that she said changed her life forever.
"My dream is to be a potting librarian," she said, referring to her love for books and ceramics. "I'd like nothing better than to come back here and work one day."
• • •
Thackrah started New College on Aug. 25. Officials confirmed she is the oldest student living on campus.
Founded in 1960 and located on a 110-acre campus along the Gulf of Mexico, New College of Florida is the state's legislatively designated "Honors College for the Arts and Sciences."
It is rated as one of the country's top public liberal arts college, according to Jake Hartvigsen, the college's public affairs director.
Enrollment is a little more than 800 and the student to faculty ratio is 10 to 1. Eighty percent of the student body lives on campus; the average age is 20.1 years.
"The work is very intense, but I'm enjoying it," said Thackrah, who spends most weekends in Largo.
Her schedule includes courses like medieval history and optical physics.
She gets along swimmingly with her three roommates, ages 18 to 21.
"I told them not to think of me as their mom, but I think they do — they can't help it since I'm twice their age."
Most nights she and her peers work together at the kitchen table doing homework and avoiding the campus parties with themes like "body art" or "wear anything but clothes."
Recently Thackrah won another award — the LeRoy Collins Distinguished Community College Alumni award, presented by the Florida Association of Community Colleges. She will be honored at a banquet Nov. 19 in Orlando.
Against All Odds.