Life trials almost thwart some graduates

3:17:28 PM CDT - Tuesday, May 06, 2003

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

salyi_va_with_kids.jpg (13,339 bytes)

Salyi Vu, a paraprofessional adviser in the

LAS Advising Center who will graduate from

WSU May 17, enjoys some time with her

children, Steven, 12, and Cenda, 10, who

played a major part in her recovery from

traumatic head and spinal injuries that left

her with severe cognitive and memory

problems after a 1996 car accident. Her

children helped her relearn the ABCs,

simple math and other life skills.

A young mother who had to relearn the ABCs after a traumatic car accident. A 90-year-old retired journalist. An Army reservist whose final semester was nearly cut short by the war in Iraq. They will be among the hundreds of students who will participate in WSU commencement ceremonies May 16-17.

As the car Salyi Vu was a passenger in kept spinning in the intersection of 13th Street and Topeka after another car had slammed into it, the new life she was envisioning was spinning away, too.

It was New Year's Eve 1996, and the spring of 1997 was going to hold more promise for Vu. She was planning to divorce her abusive husband and was coming back to WSU to study to eventually become a chiropractor.

Instead she spent that spring, and several years after that, recovering from the traumatic head and spinal injuries that left her with severe cognitive and memory problems. A few months later, the 1992 graduate of East High would lose in a flood all the pictures, paperwork and other items she was relying on to rebuild her memory.

Instead of learning from WSU professors that spring, she was learning from her children, particularly her 5-year-old son Steven, who was helping care for both Vu and her 3-year-old daughter Cenda in his childlike ways.

"Thank goodness I had taught them things when they were very young," Vu says.
Steven helped her learn her ABCs again. "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" by Dr. Seuss became her favorite book. The first song she could sing from memory was the simple "Barney song."
He taught her to add and subtract, math functions she still struggles with even though she now tutors WSU students in calculus, physics, chemistry and Spanish.

"Some of the simple things are hard for me to do," Vu explains.

Her husband took advantage of her amnesia, shielding her from friends who knew Vu was planning to divorce him.

Finally, by the spring of 1999, Vu had "broke free" from her marriage and was enrolling again at WSU. But she struggled. She carried a dictionary, thesaurus and the Holt Handbook, a composition book, to help her understand words and how to put a sentence together. She would spend hours and hours trying to read just one chapter of a textbook.

Academic adviser Lavona Spencer referred her to the Counseling and Testing Center, where she found out she had a learning disability. Working with Abiola Dipeolu, she developed skills to compensate for her memory loss. With the encouragement of Spencer, she applied for and became a paraprofessional adviser in the LAS Advising Center, helping advise other students.

After earning her bachelor of arts degree with field majors in sociology, ethnic studies and Spanish and minor in philosophy, Vu will enroll in graduate school at the University of Minnesota to eventually earn a doctorate in the education field.
* * * * *

He investigated crimes, served in the military, reported the daily news and wrote three episodes for the TV series "Gunsmoke." But 90-year-old Joe Stone had never received his college degree until this May.

Stone likes to say that his birth in 1913 moved the population of tiny Frizell, Kan., into double digits.
At the University of Wichita in the 1930s, Stone was studying for his political science degree and working four-hour shifts as a cadet officer for the local police.

"If you were any good you soon found out (shifts) turned into 8 hours, and trying to carry 15 hours of coursework was murder," Stone says.

He became a detective. Crime had killed Stone's ambition to get a degree.

Later he joined the Coast Guard, living in New Orleans and still investigating crimes.

When he returned to Wichita he worked at The Wichita Eagle for five years. He left in 1953 to move to San Diego to join a former Eagle colleague at the San Diego Tribune and to be geographically closer to his brother, Milburn, who played Doc in the "Gunsmoke" series. Stone later worked at the San Diego Union, and in retirement writes a twice-monthly column in the Borrego Springs paper.

He ended up writing three "Gunsmoke" episodes; one led to an Emmy for his brother.

Two retired San Diego journalists, Hal Steward and Hugh Crumpler, started the campaign that led to Stone receiving his degree, nearly 70 years after he first attended WSU.

It took communication faculty member Les Anderson some time to find Stone's original transcript "I think it was written in stone," Anderson joked. Through some recalculation of his classes, which are now worth more credits than they were back in the 1930s, and life experience credit, Stone is finally receiving his degree.
* * * * *

Latrice Coleman won't let herself get too excited about earning her college degree, even though she'll be the first in her family to do so.

"I won't be excited until May 17," she says, when the Barton School of Business holds its commencement. She waited until the last possible minute to buy her announcements, cap and gown.

Since January, her Army Reserves unit, the 853rd Replacement Company, has been on alert, training and waiting for deployment orders to the Middle East where it would be responsible for personnel files.

She'd joined the military to pay for college and it looked like her military obligation might keep her from finishing her studies. She dropped two of her four classes because of her training schedule.

During this time, she says she's appreciated not only the support from her family and friends, but that of faculty members Stephen Porter and Gerald Graham, who had often inquired about her deployment status or would just say, "Glad you're still in class, young lady."

"It always made me feel good to know they were concerned," she says.

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