30 years later, St. Anthony woman earns degree

Dawn Smith poses for a graduation photo with her parents, Al and Dianne Demaegd, both of Jasper.


Dawn Smith was determined to get her bachelor’s degree.

She started her pursuit in 1988 and was met with life changes and challenges.

But she didn’t give up.

On May 4 of this year, the 48-year-old St. Anthony woman exited Ball State University’s commencement, her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education in hand.

“I had to know that I finished it,” Dawn said. “I had to come to the end, had to complete this.”

She started her college career as an 18-year-old at Ball State in the fall of 1988. “Everything was new to me,” she said. “I was a traditional student looking to get involved in all that I could in school.”

Her first year went by OK. During her second year, she lost her beloved grandfather to illness. In her third year of school, she became pregnant. So in 1990, she left Ball State and moved back to South Bend to be closer to her parents, Al and Dianne Demaegd.

“It was hard,” she said. “This was a new chapter in my life, and I had to learn how to navigate it.”

She started attending Indiana University-South Bend in 1991, and in 1992, had her son, Christian. To support her new family, she worked three part-time jobs: at schools as a substitute teacher, at a mall bookstore, and at an insurance center at night. In 1994, she started working full time at an insurance company and stopped going to college as much.

“I still picked up a class here and there,” Dawn said. “But I had to work full time to support Christian and me.”

Dawn Smith, center left, poses for a graduation photo with her sons, Frank Mollenhauer, left, and Christian Mollenhauer, and her husband, George Smith.

In 1995 she got married, and in 1997 had her second son, Frank. That’s when her family life dominated her time. “I didn’t go to school for about three or four years,” Dawn recalled.

She and her family moved to Dubois County in 2002. She started taking classes at Ivy Tech in 2003 and also got her certification to operate a licensed childcare facility, which she did from her home. Things were moving along well for Dawn. She was working with children — which has always been her pursuit — going to school and taking care of her family.

But another life change happened. She got divorced in 2007 and had to close her daycare to find a full-time job.

“I was blessed by the parents of the children I took care of,” Dawn recalled. “They surrounded me and supported me. I am so grateful to them.”

One parent led her to Best Chairs, where she ended up working.

Two years later, in 2009, she fell in love and married George Smith. She left Best Chairs in November 2009 and in January 2010 joined Hummingbird Day Care in Holland, where she is now a teacher.

All the while, she never gave up her dream of completing her college education.

“People kept saying that I’d never finish,” Dawn said. “I told them that I wasn’t done yet. It has taken me longer. I may be paying for student loans with my social security check. But I’m not done.”

She completed her coursework at Ivy Tech in 2012, earning her associate’s degree in early childhood education, with honors. She walked across Ivy Tech’s commencement stage on May 4, 2012, exactly seven years before her walk across Ball State’s commencement stage.

Her plan was to go back to Ball State to earn her bachelor’s. She did that through the university’s distance learning program.

Dawn Smith's graduation cap

“There were many nights I’d be at the kitchen table, head in the computer taking tests,” she said. “The kids were old enough that we could all share different duties around the house. My husband and boys understood and supported me through all of this.”

And on May 4 of this year, husband George, sons Christian and Frank, and her parents, who now live in Jasper, were in the crowd cheering as Dawn received her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Ball State University.

Since May 4 is now associated with Star Wars in popular culture, Dawn chose a quote from Hans Solo for the top of her decorated graduation cap. The quote perfectly describes her attitude through her 30-year educational pursuit, especially to those who told her that she wouldn’t complete this feat:

“Never tell me the odds.”

So is she done now? Well...

“I’ve applied to the master’s program (at Ball State),” she said, “but I’m not sure if I want to do that yet.”

Dawn does know that she will be a lifelong student, whether it’s in a class or in the world as a whole.

“You can never be completely done with learning. There is so much out there to learn,” she said. “You should never be done being a student.”

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