Anthony Langhorne's future sat hidden on his desk.
Buried under postcards and invitations from a variety of universities and small colleges, a beacon from Columbia University called out to him. Yes, that Columbia University. New York. Ivy League. Prestige.
He really didn't notice.
But his wife did.
In one serendipitous moment, Shaneka Langhorne blazed a new path for her husband and for herself. She encouraged him to attend the recruiting event and decided to go along, ultimately applying to the school as well. When both enroll at Columbia this fall, it will be the culmination of a remarkable comeback for a couple that once gave up on college but never gave up on each other.
The love they share and the drive they possess come not just from within but from the hopeful eyes of their two daughters.
Anthony, 25, found his way back to Hillsborough Community College after all kinds of starts and stops. He began a photography business, served as an assistant manager at Family Dollar, worked at a Fidelity Information call center, and earned an insurance license and a job at New York Life.
He knew there had to be more.
The story is much the same for Shaneka, 25, who met Anthony as a teenager through the Ebony Scholars program in St. Petersburg. They both did well in school — Anthony at Gibbs, Shaneka at Lakewood — yet neither found much academic success after graduating.
They married at the age of 18 in 2005. Anthony said he wouldn't advise anyone else to marry as teens, but the pair persevered through faith, understanding and growth.
"You have to get over your selfishness. That's a major part that could have ended us," Anthony said. "We had to keep the relationship growing. We became each other's best friend. We had to immerse into each other and discover what we liked and didn't like."
Still, young love proved difficult when it clashed with financial realities. They lived in poorly managed apartments, and with Anthony's mom and with Shaneka's parents.
They moved five times in two years.
The challenging home front didn't mesh well with Shaneka's academic pursuits. In two semesters at St. Petersburg College, she failed six classes and withdrew from two, compiling an "embarrassing" grade point average of 0.571.
"I didn't withdraw properly, so I lost all my financial aid," Shaneka explained. "I thought maybe college isn't for me."
New motivation came from LaChea, born in 2007, and Lyvia, born in 2009. The importance of providing a better life for them inspired the couple and made them refocus on education.
"We both were at the same place, in a boat on a lake, going nowhere," Anthony said. "We had to do something and we knew the best way to promote ourselves was through education."
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Said his wife: "I needed to get my act together. I said, 'Everything I do from here forward is with the betterment of my children in mind.' We had to grow up, find some stability."
She returned to SPC two years ago, but not before she and Anthony saved up $1,000 to help compensate for her past mistakes and loss of financial aid. She earned two A's and a B in her first semester, gaining confidence and eventually getting into the honors college at the school.
Anthony enrolled in HCC and began making top grades. He joined the Hope Scholars program, which helps black and Hispanic males move on to four-year schools through mentoring and academic support.
"I'm certainly impressed by his maturity at such a young age," said Keith Berry, Hope Scholars executive director. "To be married and have kids, to work and go to school takes a lot of maturity that I didn't have at his age."
The support system and Anthony's top grades and Phi Theta Kappa membership drew the attention of four-year schools, and thus the letter from Columbia. He leaned toward dismissing it because in his mind, Ivy League schools were only for the kids born with a silver spoon and groomed for college.
Shaneka saw it differently.
"Do you have any idea what this is?"
"She said, 'I'm going with you so you don't screw this up,' " Anthony recalled with a laugh.
They walked into the ballroom at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay expecting to be joined by hundreds of prospective students, but only 15 people had received invitations. They knew then that this was a different recruiting effort.
After hearing remarks from a Columbia official, Shaneka realized that she too could achieve the Columbia dream. They set their sights on New York and never wavered, propping each other up through challenging days until they received acceptance letters into a special program at Columbia for nontraditional students.
Shaneka says she's addicted to planning, and has life mapped out. She knows she will graduate with honors from Columbia and eventually earn a doctorate in environmental sciences with the hope of working for the United Nations.
Anthony will seek an architecture degree. A youth minister at New Covenant Family Center Baptist in Seffner, he hopes to leave academic "footsteps" others can follow.
In the meantime, they are searching for ways to cover the costs. Shaneka received a scholarship to help with tuition, but room and board as well as day care for the girls remain uncertain.
Only recently have the Langhornes come to realize exactly what they have accomplished.
"After we both got accepted, we noticed the significance of what we were doing," Anthony said. "Going through it, we didn't really know the value; we just knew we had to do it together.
"I couldn't have done it without my wife. There were times I wanted to give up, times I needed to be alone and lock myself in a room. Through the fires, we were actually able to deliver."
Ernest Hooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.