It took TiffanySinclair 35 years to obtain her degree in psychology.
She graduated Friday from University of Colorado at Colorado Springs with 1,800 other students at the Colorado Springs World Arena.
UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak could have been talking directly to Sinclair when she told the crowd that those who were there "without loved ones due to events beyond their control should know everyone is celebrating and honoring you."
The tragedies and obstacles Sinclair endured as she clawed to get an education would have knocked many to their knees.
Along the way to this triumphant moment Sinclair had to live in her car, her husband died suddenly, her daughter Jordan had a brain tumor that left her almost blind, her son Ian underwent surgery as a kindergartner; and she was caregiver to her mother in law and her mother.
After the ceremony, she hugged her kids.
Ian, like any 13 year old, took one look at his mother's diploma and joked, "I'm pretty proud of mom. She did pretty OK-ish."
Jordan, 14, , who is in high school and taking college classes, gushed, "It's wonderful."
Wonderful is an understatement.
Those who know how Sinclair struggled for this diploma say her story it is one of perseverance and inspiration. She was honored earlier this week at a luncheon hosted by CU Foundation's Karen Possehl Women's Endowment Scholarship Program, which helps nontraditional students. It was that scholarship and another from Flying Solo, that enabled Sinclair to graduate. She had a 3.92 grade point average for her two years at UCCS, and a perfect 4 point in her major.
"She has had a lot of challenges and a lot of courage and tenacity that comes from inside," said her endowment mentor Lee Ingalls Noble.
During a conversation earlier in the week at her home, Sinclair shed some tears, but didn't shrink from reliving those painful times and how far she has traveled. "I don't feel like I did anything special. I just coped as life happened,"
She tells her story for one reason: "My message is: If I can do it, everyone else can too."
Sinclair fled a stressful home life at age 15. She had a $2,500 bequest from her grandmother and $500 she had saved from odd jobs, to start college. While living with an aunt, she got a high school general equivalency diploma, did well on her college entrance exams, and enrolled in a community college in Gainesville, Fla.
But she ended up using much of her money to help a relative who was going through bad times.
Things were so tight Sinclair had no money for textbooks. "They weren't available in the library, so I would go to the bookstore and read them."
She worked the 5 a.m. shift in a hamburger joint, and then started her own housecleaning business which paid twice as much, maybe $5 an hour. Eventually, she was able to buy a rundown trailer for $1,500 and obtain an Pell grant for tuition. "I lived on $300 a month, which was possible in the 1970s."
It took her four years to get her associate's degree.
Then she moved to Tampa, Fla., to attend the University of South Florida, for a while living in her car and showering in the gym. "It was sweltering and I'd open the car window just a bit, because I was afraid someone could reach in."
Jobs were scarce because of a recession. Her income came from the 10 hours a week as a math tutor. She dropped out of college and moved to Houston, where her aunt lived. She worked for a big-box store. "I didn't give up on the idea of college, but my schedule was too variable to take classes," she says.
She married Doug Sinclair in 1985. "I was the major breadwinner until Doug found a good job in computer sales." She quit work to help care for her husband's mother who had cancer, and came to live with them.
They had tried for years to have children, and Jordan was born in 1999. Ian was born prematurely a year later. Both were high-risk pregnancies and she spent much of the time in bed.
They moved to Colorado Springs in 2003 when her husband was hired by Hewlett-Packard. A year later, she was ready to enroll at UCCS, but didn't meet a deadline to show she didn't have to pay out-of-state tuition.
"I decided to wait until next year," she explains. But that next year, she was in the emergency room, with a doctor telling her that her healthy husband had only a 50 percent chance of surviving a rare bacterial infection. "He got sick on Monday and was gone by Friday."
She had no job and her two kids were in diapers. "I was in crisis mode, and sold my house moved to a rundown house in Peyton where it was cheaper and quieter and I could still keep my horses." They were able to live mostly on life insurance proceeds, and Social Security survivor benefits.
Then her son, who suffered from a painful pediatric esophageal problem, had to have surgery. "Here he was, in kindergarten, undergoing three hours of surgery."
Soon after, she discovered that Ian couldn't read. The rural schools didn't have enough resources for his dyslexia problem, so she took both kids out of school and home schooled them with help of an online charter school. She spent weeks learning how to teach a well-known dyslexia program so she could help Ian. Now he reads at grade level.
With things going well, Sinclair filled out applications to attend UCCS. But the very next day, in March, 2011, her daughter Jordan had a seizure. Her brain was swelling. She went from the emergency room to six hours of surgery to remove a benign brain tumor that had been slowly growing since birth.
When she woke up, Jordan had only a small area of normal vision. "She kept saying the room was on fire, because all she could see was red."
Sinclair's mother came to out to Colorado to help with the children and purchased a home for them to share.
"She told me it was time for me to go back to school and not worry."
But soon, doctors diagnosed her mother with terminal cancer. Sinclair took care of her until she died, months later.
"One of the last things she told me was go to school. My only regret is that she is not here to see me graduate "
Sinclair applied for scholarships, just making the deadlines. She received $5,000 from the women's endowment and a similar one from the Flying Solo Scholarship Program which provides aid to single parents. The endowment is providing another scholarship, so that Sinclair can get her master's degree in mental health counseling.
Sinclair jokes some about her perseverance. "I'm just mean and stubborn," she laughs.
"I know it sounds like I am some Pollyanna. But I'm not. All along it was the way people lifted me up with kindnesses that got me through."
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