After all the times in her 49 years that Dilia Melendez could have decided a college diploma was beyond her reach, nothing was going to stop her from crossing the stage at the I wireless Center in Moline on Saturday.
Melendez made it to St. Ambrose University commencement ceremonies just more than a month after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street in the wheelchair she has been forced to use outside her home for more than a decade.
"I just couldn't sit there and feel sorry for myself," she said. "I had to make it here. It has been my goal for the longest time."
Melendez, whose mobility has been limited for a decade due to complications from diabetes, suffered a broken arm and other injuries when she was knocked from her chair while returning home from the grocery store in mid-April. She spent a week in the hospital and two weeks in a rehabilitation center before returning home last week.
Stepdaughter Brooke Hess said Melendez's biggest concern in the immediate aftermath of the accident was the possibility of not being able to collect her Bachelor of Elected Studies degree on Saturday.
Although she will make up a missed class project before officially graduating, Melendez said she made up her mind right away she would partake in Saturday's ceremonies.
"I was so scared that I wouldn't make it," she said. "I worked so hard. I got involved with occupational therapists and I made it. There's a lot of pain, but I'll be OK. I have faith."
And determination. Melendez grew up in New York City after moving there from Puerto Rico as a child. She joined her husband Vinny Melendez in Davenport five years ago and came to St. Ambrose after graduating from Scott Community College.
She plans to put her degree to use in social work.
"I want to go back to work and I love helping people," she said. "People need a lot of help and I want to be there for them."
Melendez isn't the only 2012 graduate in her family. She said her son will graduate from law school in New York next week. But the plucky Ambrosian justifiably may be the proudest member of the Class of 2012.
"I never thought I would make it," she said of being a college graduate. "People used to tell me you're never going to get nowhere. I made it. I made it. And I'm proud."
Another proud SAU graduate Saturday was Sarah Goldberg, who came to St. Ambrose five years ago and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in psychology despite battling mobility issues of her own due to cerebral palsy.
Goldberg had an active college career, serving as a women's basketball student manager for three seasons and as a member of the Circle K Club. Ryan Saddler, director of student disability services at St. Ambrose, said Goldberg battled homesickness and anxiety early in her SAU career, but got around with the help of staff for her first four years before getting a service guide dog, Bower, at the start of her final semester.
Both Sarah and Bower donned gowns and mortar boards and they won a hearty round of applause when she collected her diploma.
"I liked being at St. Ambrose but the school work really made it challenging," said Goldberg, who lives in Wilmette, Ill. "I really wanted to go away and that's what I got to do. I'm a better person now."
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