by Ann DiStefano

At the last board meeting for the Fresh Start Scholarship Foundation, I found myself wondering how such a diverse group of women all came to support this cause. As one of the newest board members, I am not familiar with the stories and histories of all of the others. But I am curious. With so many worthy causes, what led us all to advocate for the Fresh Start Foundation and the scholars we support? Did these women, like our scholars, begin college, but then suffer a setback that kept them from graduating? Was it a setback of finances, family, health or something else? Or, perhaps their paths were more like mine.

I was lucky enough to have parents who valued learning and treated secondary education as a given, not a choice. For that reason, I never questioned whether I would go to college, only where. I understood young that school was preparation for the future, so I studied hard—eager and ready for the challenges to come. My parents’ ongoing praise and support strengthened my sense of purpose. I enjoyed learning, and I mostly enjoyed school. But even my road was not always smoothly paved. My brother’s death when I was a senior in high school completely rocked me, but it didn’t knock me off my path. My grieving heart would ache at college no less than it had in high school, but there was never even a discussion of whether I would still go.

My four years at the University of Delaware were satisfying. I found the campus beautiful and was genuinely interested in most of my classes. Since the goal was education, I was a fairly serious student. I joined no sorority, attended few parties and, not surprisingly, developed no lasting friendships. Beyond books, there was a boyfriend, an off-campus apartment and a job to pay my bills. My mother recently mentioned to a friend that I graduated in four years, and a full 25 years later, it occurred to me for the first time that I could have taken longer.

I offer my experience not as a roadmap, but instead to demonstrate that varied are the paths that lead to graduation. Some people may hear my story and feel sorry for what I missed—the experiences neglected, the relationships not built, the memories unmade. Shouldn’t there have been more to my college years than just a diploma?

But I have no regrets. I took the road that was right for me, and I am thankful to have had enough encouragement, means, circumstances and luck to keep me on it. My path allowed me to get the education that has opened doors for me and facilitated all aspects of my life. It has allowed me to have skills and experience I can bring to my position on the Fresh Start board. Had things been different, had just one of those things been absent, and I may have an entirely different story to tell.

It is my gratitude for all that went right that fuels my passion for Fresh Start. It doesn’t happen that way for everyone, and I know it. Fresh Start can help provide the support, money, time, or guidance that might be the key to helping a woman get back on her way to the diploma that can improve her life. It’s so easy to get knocked off the college path, and I admire each scholar for her story of overcoming adversity, triumphing over challenges and defying odds to finish the education she started. And I know that when she does, she’ll have the skills and experience to provide that missing key for someone else—someone with a completely different story from hers.

While we all may have taken a different route, we were led to the common goal: helping deserving women get the education that can change her life and maybe even the lives of those around her. After all, it doesn’t matter how we got here; it is the path that leads beyond the diploma that is the most important of all.