Sarah Kuhl felt silly about being so excited for her graduation Friday from Clatsop Community College with an associate degree in general studies.
Kuhl, 39, recently watched her daughter cross the stage to receive a bachelor’s from Hawaii Pacific University, and one of her two sons graduate from the eighth grade at Broadway Middle School.
“I realized the other day I never graduated from anything,” she said. “I quit my school career when I was in seventh grade. I realized I never got to go to an eighth-grade graduation, and I never got to go to a high school graduation.”
Kuhl, from Santa Cruz, California, has had a rather unorthodox and challenging journey from living on the streets to donning her cap and gown.
Kuhl said she grew up in a family living a somewhat pagan lifestyle. In the seventh grade, Kuhl said, she, her mother and her younger sister ended up living on the streets, finding anywhere they could to sleep for the night, from a friend’s couch to the beach. Kuhl moved out on her own by age 15, working two jobs and 16 hours a day to scrape together enough cash to make rent, lying on rental applications about being 18 and learning Spanish through her jobs along the way.
At 15, Kuhl took the GED exams and passed with little practice. Around that time, she met her husband, Steve. Emboldened by passing her GED exams, she took some classes at a local community college, but dropped out after becoming pregnant.
Before moving to the North Coast, she and Steve had been living in his hometown of Reno, Nevada. Steve was a U.S. Marine, and after getting back from a tour in Iraq, wanted to live somewhere greener. The couple took a road trip up the Pacific Coast and stopped in Seaside, where they settled in 2006. After a two-year stint in Hawaii, the couple moved back in 2015. Kuhl wanted to re-enter the workforce, but found most places wanted a bachelor’s degree.
“I thought, ‘I just want to finish something,’” she said. “I can’t say that I have a seventh-grade education for the rest of my life. I think I just wanted some closure.”
Kuhl went to Clatsop Community College in fall term of 2015, in her late 30s and with about 20 credits from a college term at age 16 and another in 2007. She passed her classes, but felt overwhelmed by a particularly difficult math class, quitting again in winter term. “I’m like, ‘It’s not meant for me.’ And then my husband and the math teachers are like, ‘No, come back, come back, you can do it,’ and so I signed back up for spring.”
Kuhl graduated Saturday on the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and a 3.7 GPA, slightly lower than her daughter’s. A bilingual home visitor with Oregon’s Healthy Kids health coverage program, Kuhl said she will study for her bachelor’s at Warner Pacific University’s adult education program in Longview, Washington, with a focus on social sciences and human behavior to help advance in her line of work.
Despite all she’s gone through, Kuhl said she still felt silly for finally reaching her first graduation at nearly 40 years old.
“I think if I had done the traditional thing, graduated from high school, I would have already had it under my belt and been like, ‘Oh, it’s just an (associate).’ But I worked really hard for this,” she said. “It was really hard to get this. Mentally, I had to work harder for it than someone fresh out of high school, or at least that’s what I tell myself.”
— Edward Stratton