Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, who was killed in the Dec. 14, 2012, mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was awarded an honorary degree posthumously over the weekend.
Hochsprung – who was pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership at Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, at the time she was killed – was given her degree at the college’s 98th commencement ceremony.
Her daughter Erica Lafferty didn’t attend, but her husband George Hochsprung and her mother were on hand to accept the touching tribute.
Lafferty, 29, was unable to hold back the tears as she watched the ceremony on a live stream. “I wish I could have been there in person, but I’m very thankful that they were streaming it online because I couldn’t be,” she tells PEOPLE.
She adds: “In the back of my head I kind of heard my mom’s voice saying, ‘Really, I didn’t earn that,’ but I think she would be very happy and very honored that they chose to recognize her.”
Hochsprung was just a few months into the doctorate program when she died. “They only knew my mom for a short time,” Lafferty says. “She really made a lasting impression on them.”
Lafferty recalls with a laugh how her mom worried about juggling her studies. “I remember having this phone call with her and she asked ‘How am I going to do this on top of work and everything else?’ She was always trying to conquer the world.”
The college also created the Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung Center for the Promotion of Mental Health and School Safety in her honor.
“It’s definitely something that speaks volumes to my mom’s character and what she was trying to achieve in her professional life,” Lafferty, who works for Everytown for Gun Safety as part of its survivor outreach program, says. “To know there’s this whole center named after her and that it’s a place where educators can go and learn how to better recognize mental health issues in their students as well as promote school safety is an amazing and incredible tribute to my mom’s life.”
While accepting the honorary degree on his late wife’s behalf, George praised her dedication to education.
“She believed that education could begin to resolve some of the issues in the world,” George told the crowd, according to the Saratogian Education. “We were both sailors, and it s all about the journey, not the destination. I am just thankful that Sage allowed us to take this journey and it s been beautiful.”
“Pursue your dreams, it s always a compromise, it s always costly,” he continued. “But be true to yourself and be true to your dreams, whatever that is.”
• Reporting by LIZ MCNEIL