Photos by Ralph Freso / Friday morning Commencement slideshow
Shanique Edwards Ruffin never walked a graduation stage, even in high school.
In Jamaica, where a fee was charged for the ceremony, her older sister told her she had a choice. Graduation or a little money to start college.
The family with six children lived in a dirt-floor house with no running water. Ruffin played soccer at school just so she would have lunch money.
She chose college. Her mother, who taught preschool, told her education was the way out of poverty.
But it was pay-as-you-go college for Ruffin. She sold bags and clothes. She borrowed money until banks wouldn’t lend money anymore.
“I was never able to finish university because I couldn’t afford to,” Ruffin said. “I hung on to my faith, knowing that God would turn it around.”
Nearly 20 years later, she walked across the stage Friday at Grand Canyon University Spring Commencement for nontraditional students, stopped at the top of the descending stage stairs, and flashed a bright smile.
“I feel like I am the one who is graduating,” said her mother, Nida Edwards. “I am so proud of her.”
Her destiny changed, Ruffin said, when the family migrated to America in 2013. But it took years.
She needed to make money, so she cut hair out of her home in Richmond, Virginia, while remembering the joy she felt teaching classes and going to university in Jamaica. One day, she would return to her passion, but she got married and had two children.
“Teaching is all I know. I was making money, but it wasn’t fulfilling,” she said.
Ruffin heard of a job teaching preschool at a local church. “I prayed about it. I went there and said, ‘God sent me here,’ and she acted like she was expecting me. I started the week after,” she said.
But the dream of college, of walking the stage, endured, so she enrolled at GCU, found enough financial aid and began to study online for dual degrees in early childhood education and special education.
“Normally, you would say you are doing this for your family. Honestly, I am doing this for myself,” she said.
Studying online wasn’t easy. Her father passed away in Jamaica, where he stayed after the family moved. After she returned from his funeral, she fought through medical issues and a surgery but never took a break.
“A lot of times I felt like I was going to throw in the towel. But when I thought of all the things I had accomplished, all the obstacles, I couldn’t give up,” she said.
“Those things make me what I am today. I have been trying to finish school for years and I couldn’t. So nothing would deter me. I had this mindset that I knew what I wanted.”
She arrived in Phoenix last week with her husband Mike, mom Nida, sister Kareen Edwards and children Kristen, 14, and Kaleigh, 8, never forgetting where she came from, a dirt floor to the graduation stage.
“I let my kids know about it, too. This is why education is so important,” she said.
Her children joined her outside GCU Arena on Friday, huddled around their mother in her robe, and were asked how it felt to see their mother cross that stage for the first time.
Kristen was not sentimental but serious: “She has worked really hard for this.”
Ruffin said that although she overcame the obstacles in the way of her dream, she is not stopping. She has applied for graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth and already has been hired to teach third grade in a Richmond public school, starting in August.
“People talk about America’s dream, and this is it for me,” she said. “I don’t take it for granted.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.