Divorced and struggling to support four children, Linda Bradley took her daughter Nicki to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the summer of 1998 for orientation—and decided to go herself. Convinced that a degree was the only way out of her dead-end job, Linda, 44, "cried for two days" when a rejection letter arrived. Then the former dairy farmer's wife marched into the admissions office and persuaded staffers to change their minds.
Nicki, 23, was far from thrilled. "I felt like she was trying to keep tabs on me," she says. But she soon discovered the benefits of having Mom on hand to soothe the occasional broken heart. "We grew so close," says Nicki, who majored in agricultural business management and plans to apply for law school. "It was good for both of us."
The pair graduated on May 18. Linda, who earned a consumer-science degree while working as a customer-service rep, hopes to become a financial planner. "I made some really bad choices after the divorce, moneywise," she explains, "so I want to give back." Says Nicki: "There aren't words to express how proud I am of her."
OUT OF AFRICA, OFF TO OXFORD
Michael Lokale was born under an acacia tree in Kenya while his illiterate mother, Miriam, tended goats—one of the many jobs she took to send her six children to college. Education, she preached, was the ticket to a good life. Before she died in 1998, she urged her son to become a doctor. "She wanted to make sure the family was taken care of," says Lokale, 24, whose stepfather scrapes by as a corn farmer. "I'm here because of her."
"Here" is the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where Lokale graduated on May 16. He enrolled in 1999 after his cousin, Olympic gold medalist Paul Ereng, helped persuade VMI's track coach to take Lokale on scholarship. Now chosen as one of Kenya's two Rhodes Scholars, the honors student and star athlete—captain of the track and cross-country teams and conference champion in the 400-and 800-meter races—heads to Oxford University in September to study gene therapy for heart disease.
Once his stint in England is up, he plans to work as a doctor in the U.S. until he saves enough to build a clinic in his village, 12 miles from the nearest hospital—a deadly distance without ambulances. Lokale also aims to give his two younger sisters a shot at higher learning. He has already helped arrange a VMI track scholarship for Dorcas, 19. "In Kenya, women are so subservient," he says. "I want my sister to be a woman who dances to her own tune."
A STUDENT AT 82—ON A FOOTBALL SCHOLARSHIP
There have been a couple of big developments on campus since Weldon Bigony put his college career on hold in 1941: computers and belly buttons. Bigony left Baylor University to serve in World War II and returned last fall to finish his B.A. in business. By the time he graduated on May 17, he had learned his way around a laptop, but he never did get used to those exposed navels. "How can you avoid them," he asks, "when they're staring at you?"
Nonetheless, the senior senior was accepted by his classmates. "I heard one student say, 'Weldon, you the man,' " recalls real estate professor Charles Delaney. The veteran of the Navy's aviation branch says his secret was simple: "I just tried to be one of them." Even if he did have to sit in the front row to hear better.
A father of three, whose wife, Amelia, died in 1996, Bigony worked as a pilot before retiring 22 years ago. After Baylor agreed to take him back—on his old football scholarship—he left his home in Big Spring, Texas, for Waco. Though his academic skills were rusty, he's glad he took them out of storage. "You gain something," says Bigony, who plans to continue volunteer work, "by accomplishing something that seems out of reach."
RECOVERING BY DEGREES
"Before the accident," says Bill Palmer, "I had a really big head on my shoulders." He began flying planes at 16, lettered in track and field in high school and majored in industrial engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. But the senior's life changed forever on April 1, 1999, when he blacked out at the wheel of his car and collided with a utility pole.
The crash left Palmer with brain injuries so severe that doctors gave him a 5 percent chance of survival. The Youngstown, Ohio, native spent five weeks in a coma, then endured five months of physical therapy. Apparently recovered, he returned to school in September. But one night he was struck by a crushing headache and tried to drive to the hospital. En route, he suffered a brain hemorrhage related to his earlier injury and careened into a building.
This time he spent 14 weeks in the ICU, then had to relearn how to talk, sit up and feed himself. Though partially blind and unable to walk, he was back on campus in September 2001, living in a dorm room equipped for people with disabilities. And on May 3, 2003, at 27, he wheeled across the stage to pick up his diploma.
"We always knew he'd do it," says his mother, Winona, 54. So did her son. "I'm very stubborn," he says. "When people tell me I can't do something, it makes me motivated to do it."
Reported by: Rose Ellen O'Connor, Ellise Pierce, Anne E. Stein and Jill Westfall