A refugee, a veteran, an athlete, a mom and a widow: Meet 5 Utah college graduates who are celebrating their diplomas

For many of the record number of students Utah’s colleges graduated this spring — nearly topping 42,000 — earning a degree took tears and way too many tests. For some, it took decades.

The Salt Lake Tribune talked to five graduates about what motivated them and what could have stopped them from walking across the stage this week. Among them is a refugee who was raised by her sister, a veteran who battled PTSD and a mom who wanted to wear a gap and gown before all five of her children finished high school.

Here are their stories:

Utah State University — the athlete who lost his mom

(Photo courtesy of Utah State University) Pictured is Sean Taylor, who played right tackle for USU, and graduated with a bachelor's in sociology on Thursday, May 2, 2019.

Sean Taylor didn’t hear any of the gunshots.

He woke up to his little sister crying. And when he found her, she was curled up on the kitchen floor where their mom and aunt had been killed, the eight bullet casings still lying on the linoleum.

Taylor, who was 6 years old at the time, remembers counting them while he waited for police to come. He still can’t believe there were so many, that the sound didn’t reach him in his bedroom, that officers never figured out who did it. Or why.

“There were so many questions,” he said. “And after that, it went to nothing really being stable in my life.”

Taylor started living with his dad in the same gang-run neighborhood in California where his mom died. The two jumped from apartment to apartment, sometimes living with a girlfriend of his dad’s, a few times sleeping on the street. Some nights Taylor crashed at a friend’s place when his dad was booked into jail. His nine siblings were spread out among other relatives.

“I don’t know if anyone expected me to grow up to amount to anything,” Taylor said. “Being in the hood, you’ve got easy access to drugs and guns. I could have fallen into the streets easily.”

After they were evicted when he was 15, his dad disappeared and Taylor walked to his grandma’s house alone. She raised him from then on, letting the 6-foot-5 boy sleep on her too-short couch and signing him up for football so he’d have something productive to do after school.

He credits that for changing the direction of his life.

This week, Taylor graduated from Utah State University after three seasons of playing football for the northern Utah school. He’s the first in his family to get a college degree. And he’s trying out for the NFL.

“My grandma gave me the work ethic I needed,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a statistic. I didn’t want my mom to think I wasted my life on this Earth.”

Before every game at USU, he’d run to the end zone, kiss his hand, count to eight and “throw it up to heaven” for her. “Hopefully, she’s proud of me. Hopefully, she’s watching over me.”

Brigham Young University — the refugee who didn’t think she was smart

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Channika Noun is a recent Brigham Young University graduate.

When Channika Noun started school in a little hut in Cambodia, she sat at the back of the class in a spot “reserved for the dumbest girl.”

She tried to learn, but none of it made sense and no one tried to help her. Her teacher told her: “Don’t waste the time to go to school.” Her classmates bullied her and called her “a burden.” Her dad hit her when she didn’t know the answers for her homework.

“I didn’t like school,” she said. “I didn’t think I was smart.”

Before she finished elementary school, her parents divorced. Her dad left. And shortly after, her mom went to the United States to find a job.

Noun and her little brother and older sister were on their own. Her sister had a scholarship to go to college, but her brother was 3 years old and Noun was 12. So she turned it down and stayed at home to raise her siblings, who were both born in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Noun got a job washing cars and cleaning houses at age 14 to help pay for them to stay in their tiny apartment in their poor village. She learned to write in ninth grade and then dropped out so she could work more hours. By 17, she’d signed up to help the country’s military because it paid more.

On Sundays, for a break, she and her siblings would attend the nearby church, set up by Utah missionaries proselytizing for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After years of attending, she decided to join and serve her own mission for the faith. She was called to serve in the state of Washington in 2013.

She applied to BYU-Idaho at the end of that with help from her sister companion, who taught her math and English. Last week, after transferring once she finished her freshman year, she graduated from the school’s Provo campus with a degree in finance. In all of her classes, she sat in the front row.

“It was hard. But what I went through during my childhood was much harder,” she said. “I’m not dumb. I just didn’t have opportunities.”

In July, Noun will start a job at Dell Technologies as a financial analyst. And next year her older sister will graduate from college in Cambodia with a degree in international studies. Both want to work together to teach kids like them how to type and read.

“There are plenty of kids in my country," Noun said, "who deserve more.”

University of Utah — the widow who wanted to study cancer

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Hollie Berry Morales graduated from the University of Utah, May 2, 2019.

After her husband died, Hollie Berry Morales decided she would grieve for one year.

So every day for 365 days, she visited his gravestone, talked about what was happening without him — how their daughter, Bridgett, was learning to drive, how their youngest son celebrated his third birthday — and just cried. She wanted time to mourn him, but she knew she had to move forward. She gave herself the deadline.

The last time she went to the cemetery in May 2013, she said: “Hey there, Ray. I’ve got to go now. I’ve sold the house, and I’m going to Texas. I’m finally going to get a degree.”

And Berry Morales knew what she was going to study: the brain cancer that killed her husband and her father.

“Through my pain, I found my purpose,” she said. “If I can just make a difference for one person, it will be worth it. If I can give one little boy his daddy back, that’s everything. That’s everything right there.”

When Berry Morales was younger, she had skipped three grades and graduated high school at 15. But she never went to college. Growing up, she had wanted to be a doctor. Whenever she told anyone, the response was: “Women don’t need careers. Their husbands will take care of them.”

Her neighbors said it. Her teachers said it. Her parents said it. So she got a job and got married.

When her first baby was a year old, her dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma brain cancer. He died 11 months later. When her fourth baby was two years old, her husband was diagnosed with medulloblastoma brain cancer. He died eight months later.

“It was just like I was experiencing deja vu,” Berry Morales said, noting their tumors were the same golf ball size and in the same place. “The two most important men in my life, taken from me by the same grim reaper.”

Spending so much time in the hospital with both of them, she said, was “like a crash course in medical school.” She read journals and typed into Google every word she didn’t know.

This week, she graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in biology after finishing community college in Texas. In the fall, she’ll start a doctoral program here in oncological sciences.

“I’d walked away from my dreams as a young woman,” the 42-year-old single mom said. “Now I’m so compelled to do this. I have to.”

Utah Valley University — the mom who didn’t finish high school

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Tracy Whitlock of Highland is a 2019 graduate of Utah Valley University.

Tracy Whitlock’s goal was simple: She wanted to get a degree before all of her children did.

“For the last 25 years I’ve been a mom, which is the best thing ever,” she said. “But that whole time I’ve had this nagging feeling that I had not much more than a 10th-grade education.”

So Whitlock applied to Utah Valley University, the largest school in the state and one with open enrollment admissions. On Thursday, she got her bachelor’s degree in behavioral science — one month before her 18-year-old son is set to graduate from high school.

Whitlock wasn’t able to finish high school when she was supposed to graduate in 1988. She got sick and missed half of her junior year and most of her senior year. “My immune system was really impaired. I spent most of my days in bed.”

She tried taking college classes a few times after getting her GED but dropped out each time. “That always weighed so heavily on me.”

When she started taking courses this time, her three oldest boys, who are also in college, helped her with the math and they’d all edit each others’ papers. Whitlock finished her last exam Wednesday at 10 p.m., just hours before she walked across the stage the next day.

She plans to start a master’s program in the fall in family therapy. When she’s finished, she hopes to teach at a college. She always told her kids that education was important. Now, she says, she’s living by her own words.

“Motherhood will always be my primary vocation. It’s what I love,” she added. “This is like a second career.”

Salt Lake Community College — the veteran who battled PTSD

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cody Wilkerson at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville on Tuesday April 30, 2019.

When Cody Wilkerson dropped out of high school at age 17, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He just knew he didn’t like school and his parents didn’t care what he did.

He picked up a few odd jobs in Brigham City, working in construction, selling cars, cleaning factories. At each one, he’d fail a drug test and move on to the next. Then he joined the military, mostly on a whim.

In April 2008, he started basic training, and five months later he left for his first deployment as a rifleman. He spent a year in Iraq and a year in Afghanistan, almost all in combat.

“That was some really intense fighting,” Wilkerson said. When he separated from the Army in 2012 and settled in Ogden, he couldn’t stop reliving the gunfire and picturing those he had shot, wondering what their lives were like, who their families were.

“I was struggling with PTSD, which I had no idea that I had,” he said. “I couldn’t concentrate. I started to drink heavily.”

Wilkerson said he essentially spent three years in a stupor. When his mom died in June 2015, it got worse. He was charged with a DUI. He ended up in the hospital on suicide watch. Choking back tears, he remembered how his 8-year-old niece came to visit him.

“I don’t want you to die, Uncle Cody,” he recalled her saying. He added: “That’s when I made the decision that I was going to get help and bounce back.”

Wilkerson went to Veterans Affairs and started an outpatient program for veterans with PTSD. His doctor visited different campuses, including Salt Lake Community College, and encouraged Wilkerson to take classes there and get treatment at their center while he worked toward a degree.

He started in spring 2017, using his GI benefits to pay tuition. Then he start working there to help other veterans.

“I was working with people who understood me, who had similar challenges as well,” the 32-year-old said.

Wilkerson, who graduated from SLCC in December, walked across the stage Friday to get his diploma, an associate’s degree in business. He’s now working on getting a bachelor’s degree at the U.