Walking across the stage Thursday at South Louisiana Community College’s graduation ceremony was 26-year-old Trish Fontenot, who, with the help of her family and friends, overcame the challenges of being a single mom to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.

Fontenot was among the more than 380 students who were candidates for graduation at the fall commencement exercises.

Stories like Fontenot’s aren’t uncommon on the community college’s campuses across Acadiana, SLCC Chancellor Natalie Harder said.

Employers value graduates who show determination and the ability to manage and overcome hardships in their lives, she said.

“They recognize that these graduates managed to overcome barriers,” Harder said. “To our graduates, I say: Great job. Don’t stop moving forward. You’ve done an amazing job. Ask yourself, ‘What is my next goal?’ And, go for it.”

Fontenot, born in Mamou, was reared by her grandparents in nearby Chataignier, a rural community of fewer than 400 residents in southern Evangeline Parish.

“We only have one store, and it’s not even a grocery store,” Fontenot said.

Neither of her grandparents finished high school, Fontenot said, but they kept pushing her to stay in school, even when she was pregnant with her first child.

“My grandpa wanted me to finish high school,” she said. “It was a dream of his.”

After she graduated high school in 2006, Fontenot gave birth to Tyler Jr., her first son.

“It was a big adjustment,” she said. “I missed out on a lot in life.”

Fontenot enrolled at SLCC’s C.B. Coreil campus in Ville Platte in 2008 to pursue a practical nursing degree and began working as a nursing assistant. She dropped out after her first semester.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she said. “I gave up. I thought I could just work as a CNA and make enough money for me and my son, and I was OK with that.”

That same year, Fontenot’s grandfather was killed in a car accident.

She said his memory still keeps her motivated to this day. From baby-sitting her children to helping with tuition and bills, her family was there every step of the way, Fontenot said.

“There’s no way I could have done it without my family.”

Even her neighbor would pitch in on baby-sitting duties.

“When I had to leave for clinicals in the morning, my neighbor would open her door at 5 in the morning for my son,” she said. “She’d put him on the bus for me.”

And when mom needed to study at night, Tyler Jr. would watch Tia so Fontenot could focus.

“He would take his sister in the other room and play with her to keep her occupied,” she said. “He took on a big part in helping me.”

Fontenot said that throughout her 18 months learning the practical nursing trade, one instructor, Debbie LeBlanc, stood out.

“She was my best teacher,” Fontenot said. “She pushed me so hard in my last semester. She gave me the hardest time in clinicals, but I made it through and I thanked her for it.”

As for the future, Fontenot said she’d love to work as a nurse at a local hospital, assisting in the day-to-day challenges of surgical patient care.

For now, she said, she may have a job lined up as a practical nurse at a local correctional facility.

Another option she’s mulling over is returning to SLCC to obtain her nursing license and become a registered nurse — not only for herself, but for her children.

“I want a lot for my kids,” she said. “I did it all for them, and I want to accomplish a lot more.”