Class Acts

They are made of paper these days, not sheepskin, and are seldom hand-signed. Yet the diplomas being presented to America’s class of ’97—more than 1 million strong—represent untold personal histories of anxiety, procrastination and simple hard work, not to mention a substantial investment of cash. Soon today’s graduates will be trudging off in pursuit of jobs and advanced degrees, or on a search for meaning that may last all their lives. But for now no one will fault them if they take time to draw a breath, smile and savor the moment. Here are the stories of 23 fresh graduates.


A lot of college kids just want to fit in. The Quad Squad was determined to be different—at least from one another. In fact when Allison, Brooke, Claire and Darcy Hansen, 22, donned identical black gowns for their Baylor University graduation on May 17, they broke one of their self-imposed quad laws: no dressing alike.

As identical quadruplets, the blonde, green-eyed, 5’7″ Hansens are all too accustomed to being seen as interchangeable. And with reason. At Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio, they were united in their dislike of math and chemistry and their fondness for track. And all four graduated in the top 5 percent of their class. They were considering a declaration of independence by attending different colleges when Baylor, in nearby Waco, offered them full scholarships to attend as a unit—in return for publicity-generating joint appearances. They were granted their one request: separate dorm rooms.

There soon followed the quad code of conduct: no embarrassing classmates who mistook one quad for another, no dating one another’s boyfriends, no taking one another’s exams. “We switched classes for each other,” admits Allison, “but never tests.” Adds Claire: “I mean, what if she fails your test? What can you do, go to the teacher and say, ‘Sorry, I wasn’t myself today’?”

Some quad habits are hard to break. The Hansens still wear identical hairstyles, and all four appear headed toward careers in journalism. Even so, the best thing they got out of college, they agree, is a sense of themselves as individuals. “You learn to do your own thing,” says Claire. Her sisters feel exactly the same.


Ioana Gal left formerly Communist Romania—and her family—in 1990 as a 22-year-old emigrant and landed in the capitalist playground of Las Vegas, the only U.S. city where she knew other Romanians. Within days she was working at the city’s money-jangling heart as a slot-machine attendant. The job, at the Westward Ho casino, gave her a crash course in human behavior Vegas-style. “I was shocked at first,” she says. “It is difficult to come from a country where the median salary is $50 a month and see people lose several thousand in a night.”

But it also helped her to pay for a college education. For much of her undergraduate career, first at the Community College of Southern Nevada and then at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Gal, now 29, worked the casino graveyard shift, making change, answering questions and fending off the advances of drunken clients. She also had to teach herself English—in her first year at college, she says, “I had an essay due every week, when I didn’t even know what an essay was.” But she turned into an ace student, earning a philosophy degree while gathering merit scholarships, dean’s list citations and an array of national honor awards. “She was one of the best I’ve ever had in my Logical Theory course,” says UNLV philosophy department chair Dr. Maurice Finocchiaro, who was so impressed that he hired her as a research assistant.

The casinos would be happy to have her back. “They told her,” says her academic adviser Dr. Cyrill Pasterk,

“whenever she wants a job there, she can get it”—but Gal has other ideas. Just seven years removed from another country, another world, another language, she has been accepted at the University of San Francisco Law School.


With parents at times too full of their own demons to nurture them, the Jeffries family saga seems like a real-life Party of Five—except that these nine kids raised themselves on the mean streets of Philadelphia. And in their case the plot turns are so implausible that no scriptwriter would dare take credit for them. Take the latest development in the family saga: This spring three of the Jeffrieses are getting college degrees, while a fourth is receiving his master’s.

Until the mid-’80s, their parents—Rafiq, who was treasurer of a Muslim school in Philadelphia, where they lived, and Gail, a teacher and then a full-time mother—provided for the children and gave them a moral compass. “Mother had a saying she drummed into us,” says Lovell, 32, the second-eldest son: ” ‘Success is not a happening. It’s doing instead of doubting, working instead of wishing.’ ”

But in 1984 the family fell apart. Triggered perhaps by the suicide of eldest daughter Lindellyn, then 20, Rafiq became addicted to cocaine while Gail, long troubled by depression, sank deeper into mental illness. For nearly a decade the parents battled their problems unsuccessfully until both entered treatment programs.

Meanwhile, poor and forced to fend for themselves, the nine remaining children—with the older members of the family supporting the younger—somehow continued to thrive.

The three college graduates this year are Rafiq Jr., 23, who majored in English and African-American Studies (while simultaneously earning a master’s degree in education) and Jeremiah, 21, a psychology major, both of whom attended the University of Virginia, and Bayyinnah, 26, who is getting a degree in education from Temple University in Philadelphia. Lovell meantime is collecting M.A.s in business and health-care financial management, also from Temple.

“They took responsibility for themselves,” says Linda Miller, a guidance counselor at Philadelphia’s Carver High School, attended by Rafiq and Jeremiah. “They never relied on excuses.”


Colleen Kremin brings authority to the subject of self-reliance. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else does,” says the 25-year-old West Point grad, whose performance on physical tests proved her to be the fittest member—man or woman—of the U.S. Military Academy’s class of ’97. “You have to exceed the standards.”

Inspiring words, particularly from a teenage runaway who dropped out of high school in Oregon City, Ore.—she later passed a GED test—and then, when she continually refused to obey her parents, was placed in a foster home. In 1990 she joined the Army, pulled herself together and applied to West Point. She has even patched things up with her parents. “West Point taught me that you are responsible for your own actions,” says Kremin. “I’m just sorry I had to be a rotten kid.”


“I was a badass,” admits Shondell White, 24, a criminal-justice major at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Growing up in nearby Newark, he seemed headed for a violent end. With his father and teenage mother unable to care for him, Shondell was taken in by loving grandparents. But later, shattered by his grandfather’s death, he joined a posse, dealt drugs and did jail time of his own. Still, the gangsta life was, for him, not an answer. Despondent, White tried suicide with pills in 1990. But with help from a Newark high school principal, he turned his life around. Though friends called him “white boy” and “traitor” when he started his college education, which was financed by his working two jobs at once sometimes, White didn’t quit. Now he hopes to start a program for boys and girls in his hood. “Some of them, they’re alone in this big world,” he says, “and the world, as you and I know, is cruel.”


The younger daughter of President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, Luci was on track to be the first woman in four Johnson generations without a college degree. “A distinction I did not want,” she says. After marrying Patrick Nugent in 1966, she had to drop out of Georgetown School of Nursing, which barred wedded undergrads. Divorced in 1979, Luci five years later married Englishman Ian Turpin, with whom she raised five children and runs the Johnson radio and real estate empire back in Texas. Three years ago she entered St. Edward’s University in Austin, vowing to graduate before turning 50 this July—and ahead of daughter Claudia, 21, now a Boston University junior. A communications major, Luci made it, with a GPA. “These accomplishments,” she says, “are mine. They weren’t given to me by inheritance.” Luci’s sole regret is that her father, who died in 1973, didn’t live to see it. “He always believed in me more than I did,” she says. LBJ would be so proud, says Lady Bird, 84. “He’d practically be buying an ad in the newspaper.”


No one in the class of ’97 has traveled further, culturally at least, than Boun Sandraow, who fled his Laotian village 15 years ago at the age of 10, leaving behind a primitive community with no written language. The world, as his mother used to caution him, ended at the horizon. Sandraow learned otherwise, but during the odyssey that took him from Laos to the campus of Bradford College in Haverhill, Mass., he endured countless perils.

When he was 9, Sandraow’s father and older brother were killed by Communists, and he felt he had no choice but to run. Waylaid for two years on the border, he finally got to Thailand, only to be forced, at 14, into the Thai army. “I did not know how to read and write,” he recalls, “but I was good at squeezing the trigger.” When he finally arrived in San Francisco by way of a Thai UN camp at 17, Sandraow thought he had found “paradise.”

Still, there were pitfalls ahead. He was placed with a sponsor but, speaking no English, fell in with a Bay Area Laotian street gang. Then things began breaking his way. Sent to live with a Laotian friend in Boston, Sandraow learned English in a community outreach program, started getting A’s and B’s in high school and was accepted at Bradford. College was easy, he says. “To be in school one year,” he adds, “is better than crossing the Mekong River for two hours.”

Once he repays $26,000 in tuition loans, Sandraow wants to return to Laos to visit his mother. “I can’t remember my mother’s face,” he says softly, adding, “I’ll feel regret for the rest of my life if I don’t see her.”


Carl Ryanen-Grant was 7 the last time he blew a class assignment. As a history major at the University of California at Berkeley, he won the University Medal, the school’s highest academic honor. This was all the more remarkable because he had to divide his time between his professors and his oncologists. In January 1996, Ryanen-Grant, 21, discovered that he had malignant melanoma, a deadly form of cancer.

“This whole medical process has put things in perspective,” says Ryanen-Grant, who was raised in Concord, Calif., by his mother, Diane, after she was divorced from Carl’s dad, David, in 1989. With his cancer in remission, he’s eager to pursue new interests: pottery and ballroom dancing. “I’m terrible at both,” he says, “but they’re fun.”

Related Articles