Different Paths, Same Destination: Graduation is Here


One didn’t give up on her lifelong dream despite sustaining permanent injuries after a serious accident. One has never left home before, while another traveled overseas just to be here. One developed an unexpected sense of pride in a place from her past. And yet another battled back from a mysterious illness to see her goals realized.

They are five students whose paths converged at Dalton State College. Each will receive a degree at the College’s Commencement ceremony Saturday morning.


Pushing Through the Pain

Cynthia Hidalgo was two months from graduating with her associate in nursing when a man driving under the influence of drugs hit her car head-on putting everything she had worked for on hold.

She had enrolled in Dalton State’s nursing program in the fall of 2012 and was on course to graduate in spring 2014 until the wreck.

“The nursing program was everything I thought it would be,” she said. “I always wanted to be a nurse. I wanted to care for patients holistically with compassion and respect. I can’t imagine anything else. But now I have permanent nerve damage.”

After three months of not being able to bear weight or move her left leg, she began therapy. Her recovery has been slow, and she still has to manage a great deal of pain. She walks with a limp because of foot drop, which was caused by the three months of immobility.

It hasn’t stopped Hidalgo.

She is graduating this semester with her associate degree in nursing and already has plans to enter the bachelor’s in nursing program at Dalton State as soon as she passes her licensing exams to become a registered nurse.

“I chickened out of going to nursing school when I was younger,” said Hidalgo. “I waited until my youngest child started school to enroll. After my first year at Dalton State, I started working at Hamilton Medical Center as a floor tech. I didn’t consider anywhere else but Dalton State. This is a wonderful, reputable nursing program. We impact this community in so many different ways. I’m proud to be part of it.”

The wreck has been hard for Hidalgo to accept, but she now believes she was supposed to have endured what she did so it would make her a better nurse.

“I was already empathetic, but now I can say to patients, ‘I’ve been there,’” she said. “We’re taught to believe the patients when they talk to us about pain, but that’s not what happened to me. I was treated like I was overreacting or just wanted medicine. Pain does something emotional to you.”

Hidalgo had hoped to rejoin the nursing program in order to graduate last year, but after talking to Sylvia Driver, the chair of the associate of nursing program, she decided to wait another year. Instead, Hidalgo enrolled in classes to meet prerequisites needed for the bachelor’s in nursing program. It gave her a year to heal more fully – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

“I made sure I got back here as soon as I could,” she said. “Even before I enrolled I came in several times to talk to Sylvia and even Dr. Leslie Harrelson, who was my English professor. They – and many others – have made me feel at home here.”

Hidalgo has applied to be a floor nurse. She has already been invited to Dalton State to guest lecture about her experience. That has sparked an interest in education, something she never thought would suit her.

But now, she’s considering a career as a nurse in education possibly as a clinical resource nurse.

“I don’t want another patient ever going through what I did,” Hidalgo said.


An Adventure Awaits

Amber Young has never lived away from home before.

She chose Dalton State partially because it meant she could live at home and care for her grandmother. But her experience here has prepared her to spend the next five months in Idaho in a remote part of the Salmon-Challis National Forest as an intern with the Idaho AmeriCorps Student Conservation Association.

Young graduates this spring with a degree in biology and will immediately put her knowledge into action during her internship. Conservation and ecology are her areas of passion.

She’ll spend her time in Idaho working with the United States Forest Service and the Department of Natural Resources working on trail maintenance, mapping, and other field work.

“As a child you couldn’t keep me inside,” Young said. “I was always in ponds and creeks. I lived with my grandmother and would bring her crayfish, which I don’t think she appreciated like I did. I’d love to eventually work for DNR as a wildlife biologist in the nongame sector. I’m extremely nervous and excited for this experience. I’ve never been away from home before, but I know Dalton State has prepared me for this.”

Young knew Dalton State’s academics would get her where she wanted to be in life, and it was a natural choice for her since it was close to home and affordable.

During her time at the College she has had multiple opportunities to experience different areas of biology and conduct student research.

“It has been amazing here,” Young said. “I’ve made so many friends and the professors are amazing. Dr. John Lugthart and Dr. Kim Hays are an inspiration to me. They are so helpful and willing to meet you outside of office hours if you need them to. The research I have done has prepared me the most - being in the field with the small mammal study or the Lakeshore turtle project or with Amelia Atwell where we have been comparing water quality.”

Young has also made the connections needed to participate in other biology surveys and projects, such as fish surveys.

“I love being outdoors,” she said. “I’m so excited to be outside this much with my internship. There will be times we’re backpacking and camping for up to 10 days at a time. When I return from this experience, I plan to look at graduate school. I would love to get into a program to allow me to study bog turtles or hellbenders more. They are both endangered. Bog turtles are found up the east coast. I’d like to save them, but not just anyone can get their hands on them. I think helping in the wetlands at Lakeshore with the turtle sampling will help me excel in that area.

“I knew biology was for me. This was the best fit. When you love something so much, you just have to go for it and stick with it.”


Finding a Second Home

At 17, Laura Winter left the only home she had ever known.

She moved from Berlin, Germany to a college in Oklahoma with dreams of playing tennis while pursuing an education. There are no collegiate sports in Germany, but it’s something Winter knew she wanted to experience.

“I had never visited that place,” Winter said. “And I never felt at home there. I knew after my freshman year I wanted to transfer to somewhere else. My mom encouraged me to stay in the U.S. And it turned out to be the best thing I could ever do.”

Winter is graduating this spring with a degree in business management. She had sent tapes of her playing tennis to Dalton State – a tennis program beginning at the time. She was offered a spot on the team her sophomore year and was immediately elected captain.

“I enjoy the community feel here,” she said. “Being in Oklahoma was heartbreaking. It wasn’t a great experience. But this has been. I’ve enjoyed being here in Dalton. This is a second home for me now. The people I met here helped make this my second home. In Europe people don’t just say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ unless they know you. Here everyone does.”

Balancing athletics and academics isn’t always easy. But Winter said rigorous German schools helped her prepare.

“It has been awesome playing tennis here,” she said. “We started as a first year program with just four girls that first semester. And you need six to compete. But we grew. I went immediately into a leadership role as a captain. I wouldn’t trade any of that experience. I love being part of the team.”

The business program at Dalton State opened Winter up to new ideas and experiences. She took 18 hours of classes while playing tennis. She was recently inducted into Beta Gamma Sigma, the international business honor society, which represents the top 10 percent of her class.

“It was all challenging, but the professors made it easy for me to succeed,” she said. “It has been exciting, and I love having the knowledge I do thanks to Dalton State.”

Winter chose to major in business management because she wasn’t sure what life after college would look like for her. She wanted a degree that would be recognized worldwide and would open her up to many different experiences.

“I can do a lot with this major in the business world,” she said. “I didn’t know if I might go home or somewhere else after I finished my degree so I wanted something broad.”

After graduation, Winter will begin a job as an international logistics coordinator at Steam Logistics in Chattanooga. She’ll be training for the next few months and will work with the company’s German clients.

“Dalton State will stay with me forever,” she said. “It helped me reach this stage of my life. I’m only 21, and I’m only beginning. But being here is something I’ll never forget.”


Becoming Part of Roadrunner Nation

Angel Bell was surprised to see herself develop so much pride in Dalton State.

As a 39-year-old wife and mother of two teens, Bell’s plan was to go to class, graduate, and become an elementary school teacher.

“I didn’t think I would be involved in the Dalton State community,” Bell said. “But I am. I’m proud to be. Roadrunner Nation is a new concept to me, but at my age, I’m doing the ‘Beep! Beep!’ like everyone else here.”

Bell entered college at Dalton State several years ago as a psychology major. It was a different place then, and it wasn’t long before Bell had a family.

She chose to become a stay at home mom and focus on her family.

When her children enrolled at Dug Gap Elementary, Bell began volunteering in the school. It sparked a passion in her for being in the classroom. The teachers and administration there inspired her to become a teacher. She worked in a preschool as a lead teacher for a while, and it confirmed the classroom is where she belonged.

“I wanted to go back to college and get a degree,” Bell said. “I entered the education program in 2014 when my son was going into high school and my daughter was going into middle school. I knew I was going to have to find a way to balance them, Dalton State, and my field placements.

“Being at Dalton State has been a phenomenal experience. I was worried about finding my place here as a nontraditional student, but it has been easy. The professors and other students in our cohort support you. It has been like a family here.”

The professors in the education program care about their students – not just academics, but all aspects of their students’ lives, Bell said. Though it has been a challenge juggling her personal and academic life at times, Dalton State has helped her succeed. They have also given her individualized instruction to help her reach her full potential, not only as a student but as a soon-to-be teacher.

“I have had a lot of opportunities here,” she said. “It has changed a lot since I was originally a student here. I have gotten to present at a conference, which was a great experience. And some students have studied abroad in Costa Rica.”

Bell spent her final semester of Dalton State student teaching at Blue Ridge Elementary in a pilot program called Learning Partnership. In the program the student teachers were treated as first-year teachers.

“It was exciting but rough at times,” she said. “I was in second grade. The children still love you at that age, but they’re becoming independent.”

Recently Bell received the Academic Excellence Award in Math Education and a Leadership Award from the School of Education.

“I see something generational happening here as well,” she said. “My son is coming to Dalton State. I’m so proud.”


Getting the Best Education

For an entire semester, Meagan Standridge thought a mysterious illness would cause her to drop out of college.

She was fighting dizzy spells, accelerated heart rates, had trouble focusing, and more.

What kept her going was knowing that she had succeeded before, knowing that she was capable of the work, and concentrating on the importance of finishing her degree.

“That semester I was so sick and I was disoriented,” said Standridge, who graduates this semester with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in communication. “I almost dropped out. But what keeping me going was knowing I had achieved so much. I knew I could make it through. I said, ‘If I can’t have my health, I’m going to have my education.’”

Standridge was a teen mom who was often discouraged by others along the way. But she had a drive to continue in spite of adversity and through illness.

She was born with a genetic connective tissue disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. And the mysterious illness was diagnosed as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which effects a person’s heart rate.

“I wanted to make sure I got the best education,” she said. “Going off to college wasn’t going to happen. Prior to having my daughter, education wasn’t that important, but I realized I need to do something with my life.”

Standridge originally entered Dalton State as a biology major, but she wasn’t doing as well as she’d hoped.

“I fell in love with my mass media class and the opportunities it presented,” she said. “I wanted to be published. I wanted to present papers at conferences. Once I got into interdisciplinary studies it gave me a level of confidence I’d never had. It was an area of academia I was not only good at but at which I excelled.”

The professors, especially Dr. Kris Barton, chair of the department of communication, pushed Standridge.

“All the faculty mirrored what I wanted for myself,” she said. “What I learned is that I’m a lot more intelligent than I thought I was. Dr. Barton is a tremendous influence on me. I am here to grow – not just to get a degree – but to be molded and developed.”

He helped her publish a research paper she did for one of his courses. The paper, “Finding Yourself in Lost: Viewer Interpretation of the Series through Reader Response” can be found in an upcoming edition of Journal of Popular Television.

Standridge is married and has three children. She works part-time as a news clerk at The Daily Citizen, where she has also had several items published. She likes the idea of being a reporter but isn’t sure that’s what she’ll do after graduation.

“I plan on starting my master’s next year,” she said. “Ultimately, I’d like to be able to teach at the college level. I’m thrilled to be part of Roadrunner Nation. This is a different campus than it was when I started. I’m growing right alongside it.”

Graduation is May 7 at 10 a.m. at the Dalton Convention Center. A ticket is required to attend.