The beautiful thing about pursuing a college degree is that it isn’t about the diploma you get at the end – although that’s certainly nice. Anyone who’s embraced the higher education experience knows that it’s a journey.

For some, the journey takes four years. Others five or six. And, for some, completing a bachelor’s degree is a marathon of an experience driven by the ups and downs and realities of life. And in December, the College sees more adult students (25 and older) completing their degrees. For those students, receiving their diplomas is the culmination of years of grit, determination and heart.

Here are three adult students whose untraditional routes to the College remind us that learning is about the journey:

Fran Palazuelos

When she was 18, Fran Palazuelos wanted to be a broadcast journalist on the radio. And that’s just what she planned to do when she enrolled as a journalism major at a university in her native Chile. But life, as it so often does, pushed her in another direction.

Fran Palazuelos

Fran Palazuelos (Photos by Reese Moore)

After moving to Spain, Palazuelos pursued a degree in public relations, but again she didn’t finish her degree. Then she moved to Mexico where she returned to studying journalism. She was just about to complete her degree at a Mexican institution when she moved back to Chile for personal reasons, one semester shy of getting her diploma.

She eventually landed in the United States 14 years ago. Then in 2013, Palazuelos decided the time had finally come to complete her college degree. Struck by the aesthetic charm of the College and its variety of majors and course offerings, she was determined to apply to CofC to finally achieve her goal of developing her art and her historical knowledge of her roots.

“I started the application process thinking they are never, ever going to pick me,” Palazuelos recalls. “I was thinking there’s no way.”

So, when she got her acceptance letter, it was “one of my biggest days ever,” says the mother of two.

As a double major in studio art and Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Palazuelos wants to help people find the joy and meaning of their native cultures through art. She spent last summer in Antofagasta, Chile, teaching printmaking to teens and college students at Balmaceda Arte Joven Antofagasta as part of an internship requirement for her degrees.

“It was so good,” she says of the experience, noting that art is about exploring your identity. “If you don’t understand where you come from, if you don’t know where you come from, then it’s so hard for you to grow.”

With plans to pursue a master’s degree and eventually return to Chile to teach art, Palazuelos, 40, is grateful for the support she has received during her journey at the College.

“The College has been amazing,” she says. “I’m going to miss it.”

Joseph Fontana

He started life as a young adult planning to get his college degree, but by his early 20s Joseph Fontana found himself working full-time preparing contract documents for the Government Group at Fluor Corporation in Greenville, South Carolina. It was a great gig for a young man at the start of his career.

Joseph Fontana

Joseph Fontana

“I enjoyed the job and liked my co-workers, but I always knew I wanted more out of my career,” says Fontana, noting that eventually he was told he would need a bachelor’s degree to climb the ladder at work. “I couldn’t accept the idea of having my career potential capped when I was still in my 20s.”

So, in January 2015 Fontana moved to Charleston and enrolled as a full-time student at CofC. He had a “less than great academic performance” during his first attempt at college and at almost 29 years old he was nervous about returning to school.

“I can’t stress enough how difficult it was for me to transition back into being a student,” Fontana recalls. “I constantly wondered if I was making the right decision. But, I knew that this was my last shot at doing this right.”

The finance major knocked it out of the park his first semester back in the classroom, earning a 3.944 GPA. He has since been inducted into four honor societies at the College, serving as chapter president of Beta Gamma Sigma Honor Society and Golden Key International Honour Society. And last summer Fontana worked as a risk management supervision intern in the Complex Financial Institutions department at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in Washington, D.C. He will return there to work full-time after he graduates summa cum laude on Saturday.

“I feel like there is no longer a cap for my future career and I couldn’t be happier,” says Fontana, now 31. “I strived for something more than just a job; I wanted a career, and that is exactly what my education at the College has given me.”

Michele Durante

At 27, Michele Durante was already a nontraditional student when she enrolled at the College in 1997 to pursue a degree in marine biology after starting at a another college right out of high school. But working as a bartender and meeting new people while trying to go to school at CofC was easier said than done.

“Working as a full-time bartender wasn’t very conducive to keeping making good grades, hence I lasted about a year and a half at the College,” Durante says.

Michele Durante

Michele Durante

She always wanted to come back to CofC and finish what she started, but as a curious, entrepreneurial spirit, Durante, who has a passion for cooking, instead opened a series of cafés and restaurants.

When her last café closed a few years ago, Durante decided to go in another direction and got a job in medical sales. And then it hit her – she could do more for herself and her daughter with a degree.

“I decided that I wanted to go back to the College of Charleston and finish that degree I started,” she recalls.

Durante enrolled at CofC through the School of Professional Studies in the fall of 2015 to earn her bachelor of professional studies with a concentration in healthcare and medical services management.

A renaissance woman by nature, Durante has worked as a chef at her various restaurants and cafés, bartended, waited tables, worked as a florist, worked as a naturalist on a local tour boat and even cleaned condos for extra money. While earning her degree over the last two years, this busy mom has run her own catering company, La Ti Da Catering, while also working as a sales rep for a medical device company.

After such a long journey to the graduation stage, Durante is hopeful she can take the next steps in her career.

“I’m hoping this degree will open doors to better companies with bigger products so I can earn a better living,” she says. “And someday I’m going to need to pay for my daughter’s education, so getting a better job with a better salary will allow me to provide for her, which is the most important thing.”

Other notable December graduates include:
  • Economics major Caroline Poetzsch launched an annual silent auction event through the College’s Microfinance Club with all proceeds going toward on-campus student activities that have a positive economic impact on the Charleston community.
  • Business administration major Riley Clermont was among a group of students from the College’s ICAT (Interdisciplinary Center for Applied Technology) program who spoke before the United Nations this fall about their app Wisdom Mothers, which aims to connect and empower women around the world.
  • International business major Jason Dalrymple brought his experience as a Marine Corps veteran to the College, where he sought to expand his skill set for his life in the private sector.
  • Marketing major Julian Harrell took his love for inspiring people and his passion for music and launched the arts nonprofit S.O.U.L. (Sounds of Universal Love) Power Productions.
  • Business administration major Owais Jadoon is a Think Differently Scholar who applies the lessons he learns in the classroom to improve the operations at his father’s craft-beer emporium in North Charleston.
  • Marketing major Eli Dent earned the distinction of CofC’s Entrepreneur of the Year with his his soccer training product SideKik.
  • Geology major Sam Fink was among a group of students who worked with the South Carolina Space Grant Consortium and NASA’s Space Grant Ballooning Project to launch a high-altitude balloon during the total solar eclipse in August in the hopes of capturing video footage from the stratosphere.
  • English major Aracelia Skridulis is a writer and editor for the online publication Odyssey and a contributor to the food website Spoon University.
  • Spanish major Andi McAfee spent a semester studying at sea and completed an independent study project in Colombia – all with the goal of one day getting involved in the coffee trade in South America.
  • Exercise science major Branden Brown, who has been involved in youth ministry for several years, will follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as ministers when he begins seminary in January.
  • Sociology major William Rainey made a name for himself as a member of the CofC Men’s Golf team, earning honors as the 2017 Colonial Athletic Association Men’s Golfer of the Year.