Tera Yanchunis studies at Gillette College between classes.
Congratulations to all of the Gillette College spring graduates, from the hard-working students graduating at the top of the class to the sleepless single parents who have tirelessly juggled multiple pieces of their life to get to this point. As Vice President Janell Oberlander has said, commencement is her favorite part of the year to celebrate these hard-won goals and dreams, as graduates celebrate their success and embark on the next chapters of their lives.
When Tera Yanchunis graduated from high school nearly two decades ago, college wasn’t an option. Back then, the Colorado teen was three months pregnant, and as she watched her classmates excitedly head off to school in parts unknown, she and her then-boyfriend got jobs, moved from Central City to Denver, and promptly entered the “real world.”
And though parenthood came decidedly sooner than she would have otherwise chosen, she was thrilled to be a mom. Having been abandoned by her own mother as a teenager, Tera had no intention of putting her kids through the same ordeal. She’d been raised by a single dad and had been in charge of raising her sister, so if anything, she was more than up for the job.
Nursing school would have to wait, as would the dream of becoming a health care provider like her grandmother, who had run the ambulance service in their small town. She’d instilled her passion in her granddaughter, and always told Tera that someone in the family needed to go on to become a nurse or a doctor and she was bound and determined that that person would be her.
Still, real life intervened in the duration, and it would take her until age 30 to return to her intended career path.
In those ensuing years, she had become a certified nursing assistant, and later had both a son and a daughter. After her relationship did not work out with the children’s father, she and her kids moved to Newcastle to live with a friend, where she continued to work as a nurse’s assistant as well as at a local restaurant.
Things were going well, though the nagging dream of nursing school still lingered. Three years ago, when her kids began entering their teenage years, she began to see her life a bit differently.
She had been working at the hospital one day when a co-worker suggested she stop talking about it, and finally, just take the time to apply online.
Why the heck not, she wondered? So, she took a deep breath, sat down, and did it.
Looking back, there was a lot about the process that she didn’t know. Things like going in ahead of time to sign up for classes and financial aid. Then, there was the problem of actually driving the roads to and from school in the winter, and after hitting a patch of black ice one day and totaling her vehicle, she began sleeping in her car in the Flying J parking lot.
“It wasn’t so bad,” she said with a shrug. “Kind of like camping in the winter. It became my home away from home.”
The hardest part of being a full-time student, though, was working two jobs while balancing motherhood and sacrificing time at home with her kids. She did her best to incorporate her study time with their own, but it was hard for her to concentrate when they needed her help, so she ended up squeezing in her schoolwork late at night and on weekends, and more or less, giving up on sleep for the duration.
“Sleep?” she said with a smile. “What’s that?”
Harder than missing sleep, was knowing that her kids were spending so much time at home without her. But she knew having a better job and being a role model for her children would be well worth it in the long run.
In retrospect, as the 34-year-old gets ready to graduate with her associates in health science and a minor in psychology, the sacrifices she’s made for the past three years to finally get here were validated Friday evening when her children watched her walk across that stage to receive her diploma.
“I want to show them that anything is possible if they work for it,” she said. “I wanted to be a role model for my kids.”
Now, gearing up for another busy year, she’ll be attending South Dakota State University next fall. There will once again be long commutes, no sleep, and busy nights and weekends, but she’s on her way and nothing is going to stop her now.