“I feel like I’m on top of the world. It’s just amazing. I think it means a lot for me to be a college graduate because I always thought I had the potential but I never had the opportunity.”

Sometimes college students have their goals planned out before the first day of classes. They know what they are passionate about studying and look forward to their first day on campus.

For other college students, their lives may follow a different path. Taking time to start a family, or discover what truly matters to them, and how they want to improve their little part of the world. This winding, at times turbulent, path to a college degree is one that is familiar to recent UNM graduate Jennifer Carranza.

Carranza left home during high school, determined to find her own way in the world. She had stayed with friends for several months and spent a short amount of time living on the streets before returning home. While Carranza was living away from home, she discovered that she was pregnant.

“I didn’t care about the consequences. I felt like I was invincible, like most kids do at that age. Surviving that unharmed was a miracle, in retrospect.”

Carranza finished high school, transferring to McClain Community High School in Lakewood, Colo., where she found a great deal of support and encouragement as a single mother returning to finish her high school education. With this help, she was able to work, finish high school and take care of her children.

After graduation, Carranza realized that she wanted to create a positive future for herself and her new family. A future that she knew a college education would help her achieve. She took her first step towards that future when she attended dental assistant school in Colorado. But Carranza knew that was only the beginning of her higher education dreams. Early on in her dental assistant career, she had wanted to become a dental hygienist, and she set her mind on achieving that goal. She had the option to attend a number of two-year programs, but there was something important about getting her bachelor’s degree.

Carranza worked as a dental assistant in Boulder, Lakewood, and Denver, Colo. She was told that her oldest son would benefit from the expertise of professionals at the New Mexico School for the Deaf after signs of him falling behind academically were becoming evident.

“My oldest son is deaf, and he has a mild intellectual disability. Those two things paired together made it difficult to find a placement in Colorado. They have great schools, and they are better programs now, but at the time they weren’t sufficient enough (for his needs).”

So Carranza brought her family to New Mexico, and while her oldest son was attending the New Mexico School for the Deaf, she started looking at what her own future would hold in the Land of Enchantment.

“I worked two jobs in Santa Fe to make ends meet, bought a house and met my current husband. We got married and I had my third son.”

Then Carranza decided she wanted to return to college, and finish her bachelor’s degree with the support of her husband and her two older sons. Like many non-traditional students, she started taking classes at Central New Mexico Community College while working part-time to get used to the impact that going to college would have on a person’s time and energy. She knew her future would soon enough be filled with classes, work, raising her children, and study sessions into the late hours of the night.

“Coming to UNM was intimidating, and it was cool. I didn’t have the college experience when I was younger and so I was able to reflect on what could have been had I gone to college when I was younger.”

“I joked with my husband that he was going to become a single parent, that this was going to be his taste of single parenthood. It’s very difficult to be a parent with or without school, but going to school, working and juggling a family life is difficult. When you’re going to college you really have to do pieces at a time. You’re constantly prioritizing and reprioritizing.”

While working on her prerequisites, Carranza applied for the UNM’s Dental Hygiene program, and was surprised when she was not accepted the first two times she applied, given her knowledge and experience. As the semesters passed, she kept her focus on her goal while working on a backup plan.

“I started taking American Sign Language on UNM’s Main Campus and had declared interpreting as a backup major. I decided to apply one more time for the Dental Hygiene program and was finally accepted.”

Carranza was one of the top students in her class, class secretary and a leader in her graduating class. Last semester she received a scholarship from the American Dental Hygiene Association. After a long eight years working on her degree, and 18 years working in the dental health care field, she finally graduated with her B.S. in dental hygiene.

“I’m proud that I’m a college graduate and I can now join my brothers in their college allure and I get to compete with their conversations and be a part of that intellectual community.

Carranza now thinks back to that moment when she walked across the stage at gradation, when she realized that her perseverance had paid off. She remembered how her family reacted after she walked off of the stage, carrying the symbol of study sessions that ran into the early morning, and the hard work that accompanied her accomplishment.

“They were super ecstatic. They were very proud, they had a lot of respect for the process I think because they saw the sacrifice, before school too but, but they saw the struggle. It was a whole progression of struggle, of perseverance, of succeeding and accomplishing.

“It has been a long journey, and although it has been a hard road, full of many challenges. I’m proud that I never gave up.”