Julie Parece will speak at the December commencement ceremony.
Julie Parece will speak at the December commencement ceremony.

For many students, the journey to graduation day is marked by stops, starts, potholes and U-turns.

Such uncharted journeys can reveal a strength of character and focused determination that was previously untapped in the scholar. That’s what happened to these December 2017 graduates. Here are their stories:

Julie Parece, 41, Louisville
Accounting and Computer Information Systems, College of Business

Her story: When Julie Parece contemplated returning to college, it seemed overwhelming. She was raising two kids and running her own cleaning company. “It was a little scary and uncomfortable to go back to school at my age. I was surrounded by kids who were literally young enough to be my children,” Parece said. “However, I quickly learned that if I put myself out there and spoke to my classmates, the age difference didn’t matter.”

Parece began pursuing her degree in earnest in 2011 and embraced her academics with passion.

Her 3.9 grade point average shows her love of learning and she has been selected as the College of Business’s Outstanding Graduate and student commencement speaker. Beyond her impressive academic work, she continued to run her business and completed a challenging internship in data analytics.

Parece says time management was her biggest challenge. “I often spent 13 hours a day on campus just to get everything done. On more than one occasion, I was studying for a test in the library with a group until 2 a.m. Sometimes just getting an oil change for my car was a challenge.”

Advice to others: Never think you are stuck. Don’t think something is impossible. Look at the ways you could make it happen instead. And don’t let fear own you.

Jalen Townsend, 24, Anderson, Indiana
Organizational Leadership and Learning, College of Education and Human Development

Jalen Townsend with his 8-year old son, Jalen.

His story: At age 15, Townsend learned he was going to be a father. “I was heartbroken,” he said. “I was playing varsity sports and I was reaching the peak. The city I come from, many teenage parents do not make it out nor move on. I thought I was going to be another statistic.”

Determined to avoid that fate, Townsend joined the military after high school and was readily promoted to the Army Special Operations unit, serving in three combat missions to Iraq and Afghanistan. He later took classes at Austin Peay State University and transferred in 2016 to UofL. He now works in the U.S. Attorney’s office. After graduation, he will pursue a career in surgical medical devices.

“My son is the reason that I was able to accomplish all of this,” said Townsend, whose 8-year old son (also named Jalen) will be there to see him cross the graduation stage.

Advice to others: Get out and meet strangers, get involved in your community, it’s OK to stumble, just dust yourself off and keep pushing, ask the hard questions and always have a plan.

Melissa Ann Berger, 28, Louisville
Nursing, School of Nursing

Melissa Ann Berger with Marlee.

Her story: College started off well for Melissa Ann Berger. She had a full academic scholarship to Morehead State University. But the pressure of college, combined with alcohol abuse, took its toll and Berger lost her scholarship and returned home. Later, an unplanned pregnancy sent her life into more disorder. And yet, single parenthood awakened a new resolve in Berger. “This made me even more determined to change my life around and make better choices for my daughter,” she said.

While working the night shift at UPS and caring for her daughter, Marlee, she began taking classes at Jefferson Community College, eventually earning two associate degrees and later transferring into UofL’s School of Nursing.

“It took me nine years but I know that if I can do it, anyone can do it,” Berger said. “Through all the tears, terrors, and rough nights I would not change my path of life for anything because it made me a stronger student and person. I am now graduating with honors from the School of Nursing with a bachelor’s degree.”

After graduation, Berger will work at the Frazier Rehab Institute. She says the job is particularly meaningful for her because her father, who was paralyzed after an injury in 2015, is now walking again thanks to the work of the Frazier Rehab team.

Advice to others: Never give up. No matter who you are or what you are going through, you can do it.

These students will be among the 900 scholars who take part in the university’s commencement at 7 p.m., December 15, at the KFC Yum! Center.