McALLEN -- They came in sneakers, flats, three-inch heels, combat boots and dress shoes, in shoes every color of the rainbow. They all walked a path filled with different obstacles to get where they are today, a path only 17 percent of adults in the Rio Grande Valley take. It was the road less traveled to graduation from college, South Texas College.

Approximately 4,018 students officially became college graduates the weekend of May 13, 2011. They gathered with family and friends at State Farm Arena in Hidalgo to celebrate the culmination of semesters or, in some cases, years of hard work.

This is a remarkable accomplishment that too few members of our community ever realize, said STC President Shirley A. Reed. It took me six years to earn my associates degree and so I can identify with how scary it is to go back to school, struggle through academics and deal with financial hurdles. I congratulate each student for their hard work and dedication. They can say what few in our region, state or even nation can; they can say, I am a college graduate. That gives them renewed confidence, opportunity and purpose, no matter what road they choose to follow from here.

For some, the path to their college graduation meant switching from high school classes to college courses several days a week.

I am nervous, happy and excited about today, said Briseida Ramirez, a La Joya High School senior who earned her Patient Care Assistant Certificate of Completion from STC. Im 18 and so its pretty exciting to graduate and getting the experience of college has been great. Its been tough being a high school student and attending college at the same time because of all the activities and work, but the hard work pays off.

For other graduates, the path was a little non-traditional they went back to college to pursue a second career.

I decided to go back to college for job security, explained Estella Rodriguez, who graduated from the colleges Vocational Nursing Program. I was an HR clerk and so it was very different from the field I chose to go into, but Im very glad I made the decision. I quit my job to go to school, but my husband was very supportive and is very proud. Although it was late in my life, I did it. Now he and my children want me to continue on to the colleges Associate Degree Nursing Program. Its never too late to go back to school. You just have to have it in your heart and go for it.

Yogi Barrera, who earned a Certificate in Structural Welding, was put on the path back to school because the economy impacted his job prospects.

I was laid off from my previous job and I decided to go back to school to be more marketable as an employee, Barrera said. I learned a new talent and acquired new skills, which means better job opportunities. Although they are younger, I learned a lot from my classmates. They had better skills than me and so in lab, they would help me learn a lot. These are good guys.

And the path to graduation day was also followed by families of the students who supported them along the way, helping them surpass every obstacle on the road to college success.

We came here from India and had to start all over again. My husband decided to go back to school to give us a better life. It was very hard because we didnt have a family network or financial support to help out, explained Anju Pathak, whose husband graduated from STCs Associate Degree Nursing Program. I was the one working to support the family. It was a struggle balancing things like our daughter getting sick and deciding who would miss out me work or him class. He would study and pat the baby on the side or feed her a bottle. It was hardest on him because he had to handle his wife, his daughter and everything at school. I think he did an awesome job. Its a very big day for both of us and I am very happy and proud of him.

No matter the obstacles or length of the path, all the students left State Farm Arena with better prospects for the future.

We are so proud of each of them and our wish is for their prosperity, health and happiness, concluded Reed. We have given them better soles, so to speak, on which to continue their journeys in life.