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The Kindness of Strangers changes one Student's Life Forever

Salena Etzler was a high school dropout with a toddler and a husband in college when the kindness of a stranger gave her life a new direction, sending her to UCO.

A waitress at On the Border, she regularly served a couple in the 50s who began asking about her life and why she wasn't in college. "Someday," she would say.

One day in early 2004, the man took out his checkbook, wrote a blank check to UCO and told her to enroll - classes had just started for the spring semester.

Still in shock from his generous offer, she drove straight to UCO. Several placement tests, she was enrolled in her first college course - an English class meeting that evening.

"I was a fish out of water. I had no idea what to say or what to do. I had been out of school for nine years. It was like I went to some foreign land where everyone was speaking a foreign language," she recalled of that first class.

For Etzler, 32, it has been quite a journey, including recently receiving at the UCO Foundation's annual Presidential Partners Luncheon the prestigious College of Liberal Arts Julian and Irene Rothbaum Award.

The Rothbaum is an impressive accomplishment for any student, let alone one who once though college an impossibility. Only five students from each college are selected to receive the award, which honors excellence in academic achievement and campus involvement.

On track to graduate in December 2009 with a degree in Geography and a minor in Photographic Arts, Etzler's passion for education and UCO is limitless. For the first time in her life, she said, she feels like she belongs.

"If I had all the money in the world, I would get five bachelor's degrees. I would take everything," she said. "I'm not just here to make a grade and get out. I'm here to learn."

That's a long way from her life as a teenager. At 15, she became pregnant and opted to have the child adopted. At 16, she dropped out of high school, a decision that forced her to move in with friends while her mother moved in with a new husband.

She bounced from one waitress job to another before marrying at 19 and having her second child. By 21, she was divorced and struggling to raise a two-year-old. At age 26, she was remarried, working at On the Border, and about to experience a new world.

Unfortunately, Etzler said, she doesn't remember the name of the man who wrote the life-changing $374 check. She did have the chance to ask why, and he simply said that he saw potential and that by helping her, he could better society. A month after she received the check, she never saw the couple again.

"If it weren't for him, I don't think I would have ever gone (to college). I don't think I could ever repay him for what he has done," she said. "I hope one day I can do that for other people."

She knows her drive for education has influenced her son, age 3, and daughter, now age 11. She sees her daughter already making goals for her future.

Salena Etzler wants to bring awareness to women's and children's rights through her photography; one day working for an organization like Feed the Children or National Geographic.

"I never really completed anything in my life....never worked for more than two years at a job," she said. "I went from thinking I would live this mediocre struggling life, to now I have huge goals for myself."

In December 2009, she will be the first in her family of origin to graduate from college - the result of the simple kindness of one stranger and a great experience at UCO.

(Photo: Scholarship recipient Salena Etzler, right, poses with her husband, James; daughter, Sydney; and son, Memphis.)

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