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Losing his mother turned USF student all business

Freshman year of high school was filled with D’s and F’s for Dakota Rockwell. He was home caring for his dying mother. Now 20, he just started as a junior at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he sits focused in a business class.
Freshman year of high school was filled with D’s and F’s for Dakota Rockwell. He was home caring for his dying mother. Now 20, he just started as a junior at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he sits focused in a business class.
Published Sep. 1, 2014


He got the letter in July, at his mom's house in Seminole. She never would have believed it. ¶ Not after everything that had happened. ¶ Dakota Rockwell, 20, had applied to the University of South Florida as a long shot, hoping — but never dreaming — he would be accepted. ¶ Then the admissions office emailed. He could start in August, in the business school.

All summer, he sweated cleaning pools, painting condos, hacking vines off fences. He hauled boats at the marina, moved furniture at an auction house, caught ladyfish to sell at the flea market: $1 per pound. Working seven days a week, he saved $700.

He would need more than that just to buy books.

A $5,000 Pell Grant would cover about half of his expenses; a Rotary Club scholarship gave him another $750. But if he was going to take classes full-time, he would have to lose some of his jobs. Then he wouldn't be able to pay his bills, or earn the extra $5,000 for tuition and fees.

After working so hard, after defying everyone's expectations, Dakota decided he wouldn't be able to afford a degree from USF.

He hung the acceptance letter on his wall.

And emailed the financial aid office, sharing his story, explaining why he couldn't enroll.

• • •

Tall and broad-shouldered, with a square jaw and earnest blue eyes, Dakota has the tousled looks of a J.Crew model, and the gravity of an older man. He is engaging, more apt to ask about you than talk about himself. He locks eyes, but his gaze often drifts. He seldom smiles, except when he's fishing. "People say I'm quiet," he said, shaking his head. "I just think a lot, about everything that happened, and everything I have to do."

His first five years were his favorite. Just him and his mom and big brother in a cramped apartment with two cats and a dog. He didn't know his dad. No one was named on his birth certificate. But most Sundays, his mom's friend would come by and take him fishing.

Dakota's mom had dropped out of high school and gotten pregnant. Six years later, she'd had him. She raised both boys on her own, piecing together minimum-wage jobs, hanging clothes at a Bealls Outlet, Ross and Kmart. "She was always working at some consignment shop store, too," Dakota said. "To find the best bargains."

When Dakota was in kindergarten, his mom got married; she and her husband bought a house. She hung curtains, lit incense, laughed a lot. She called her younger son Pumpkin, cooked him chicken Alfredo, told him that clouds were angels.

He was 12 when his mom got divorced; 13 when he noticed her losing weight. She started sleeping more, stopped cooking. She tried to hide it, but she winced when she walked. She didn't have health insurance, or money to go to the doctor. By the time the pain was so bad she was screaming in the night, it was too late. Cervical cancer had spread through her pelvis and thighs.

Her best friend tried to tell Dakota: Your mom is real sick. "Okay," he answered. "So she'll go to the doctor and get well."

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Only she didn't. He watched her lose 20, 30, 50 pounds. His older brother dropped out of high school to wait tables and help pay the bills. Almost every night, Dakota was home alone with her, a seventh-grader trying to take care of his dying mom.

"I taught myself to drive, drove illegally, to get her medicine and take her to doctors' appointments," he said. "She couldn't really eat with all the chemo, but she kept craving things. This one time, I got her a cherry pie. That was the last time I saw her happy. Then she threw it all up in the laundry room and just cried and cried."

He didn't tell any of his friends at school what was going on. That was the only place he could feel almost normal. But he kept missing classes. His mom needed him. On the last week of the grading period, he would turn in just enough work to keep from failing. "Every time I would get a report card, my mom would say, 'Let me guess, all A's," Dakota said. "And I would have all D's."

Near the end, Dakota's stepdad moved back in and called hospice; his mom was still home when she went into a coma. Dakota had just started ninth grade at Seminole High when a counselor called him to the front office. Did he want to go see his mom, before the ambulance took her away? "I didn't want to see her in a body bag," he said. "I wanted to remember her the way I knew her."

Dakota's mom didn't have life insurance. Each month, Social Security paid him $519 in death benefits. He was 15; that should have felt like a fortune, should have paid for his college. But his stepfather started making him pay $400 a month in rent. His brother moved out.

Dakota stayed. That house was the only connection he still had to his mom. After he scattered her ashes in Millennium Park, something struck him. If he dropped out of school he would end up just like her: perpetually broke, barely able to pay the bills, no savings, no safety net.

He cut his hair, went back to school and started trying. It wasn't to make her proud. This was for him. "Everyone wanted me to talk to counselors," he said. "But I knew what I had to do."

A teacher who lived down the street, the mother of his two best friends, made him dinner, helped him with homework, told him to take the SAT. "I just tried to point him in the right direction," Maria Wyatt said. "He did all the hard work. He has an incredible drive."

The last semester of his first year in high school, nine months after losing his mom, Dakota made the honor roll for the first time. He framed that report card and hung it above the bed where she died. Three years later, he became the first person in his family to graduate high school.

• • •

He got the call in August, while he was cleaning a pool in Indian Shores. Check your email, said the woman from USF.

He ran to show his boss.

An anonymous couple, alumni from USF, had created a new Good Karma Scholarship for "a College of Business student with passion and potential who needs some financial assistance in order to achieve their academic objectives."

The first $4,000 award, the email said, was for Dakota. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "I had already pretty much given up." He had finished the first two steps of his plan: graduate high school, earn an associate's degree from St. Petersburg College. But there was so much more he wanted: a business degree. Then an MBA. He hoped to get a good job, earn enough to buy a broken-down house in a decent neighborhood near a park, not to live in, but to fix up and sell. With the profits he would buy another, and another, and start renting those so he could buy more properties, maybe in Virginia or Vermont.

And some day, once he didn't have to struggle, he'd let himself fall in love, get married and have kids. And he'd buy them health insurance and life insurance and send them to college.

A week later, after he finally moved out of his stepdad's house and rented a cheaper room, he got a call. The business school was having a suit-and-tie luncheon to honor its scholarship recipients, and thank the donors. Would Dakota give the keynote speech?

His hands sweated, his jaw clenched. He had never been in a ballroom, never given a speech in front of anyone except a few classmates. He had no idea what to say to a room of strangers.

He had never owned a suit.

• • •

His entire wardrobe didn't fill a drawer: four pairs of torn gym shorts; six T-shirts; a pair of plaid cotton shorts and black Nikes. He had to clean a dozen pools to afford those.

"Do you know what kind of suit you want?" asked Barb Bushnell, who works at USF's business college.

The school had taken up a collection to buy Dakota his first suit. Two days before the speech, Bushnell drove him to the Macy's at University Mall. "Black is always a good bet for business functions," she told him.

After trying on every suit in his size, he finally chose a dark pinstripe and a baby blue shirt, a silver and blue plaid tie. "You look very nice," Bushnell said.

The next day, when he went to the business college to pick up his suit, he found a $100 bill in the breast pocket — to buy dress shoes. And the dean showed him how to tie his new tie.

• • •

At Friday's luncheon, Dakota spoke last. He sat at the head table, between the husband and wife who had donated his scholarship. Corporations and individuals had given $400,000 to 175 students.

He looked proud in his pinstripes, the new shirt matched his eyes. "Dakota has been a USF student for about 96 hours," the announcer said. "We welcome him, and are so glad this generous gift will help fund his future."

He scanned the room, 300 people, most of the other students with their moms. He spoke about being on his own since he was 15, about everyone who had helped him, all he was going to do. At the end, after thanking everyone, Dakota made a promise, "Your investment in me will be returned with interest."

Contact Lane DeGregory at or (727) 893-8825. Follow @lanedegregory.


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