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Inspirational Stories: How 5 Extraordinary People Beat All Odds to Graduate

When these strong, powerful people set their minds on higher learning, they wouldn't let everyday challenges get in their way. Here are their inspirational stories.

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Brian Kolfage: A wounded soldier pursues a dream

Brian Kolfage had been stationed at the Balad Air Base in Iraq for two weeks when an enemy rocket exploded three feet from where he was standing. His body felt like it was “lit on fire”: his legs were destroyed, his right arm severed, and his survival was touch-and-go. But twelve months and 16 surgeries later, the triple-amputee was out of the hospital—reportedly as the most severely wounded Airman to survive any war. Three years later, with three prosthetic limbs and new skills in his non-dominant left hand, he enrolled in the competitive program at the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, where fewer than one in five applicants was accepted. On track to graduate in 2014, the Pat Tillman Scholarship recipient has a 3.8 GPA and hopes to “revolutionize military architecture.” He noted: “I lost my legs, but I have my head, my brain. I can do everything I did before mentally.”

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Gac Filipaj: A janitor graduates with honors

Gac Filipaj has long been a regular on Columbia University’s New York City campus, and not just as an undergraduate hustling to his next lecture. For nearly two decades, the Yugoslav native has mopped floors and emptied garbage cans as a school janitor. The work could be exhausting, especially as his shift ran from 2:30 pm to 11 pm. But it offered an irresistible employee benefit: tuition-free courses. Filipaj, who spoke next-to-no English when he immigrated in 1992, signed up for one or two classes each semester, settling on a tough major—Classics—and regularly studying well past midnight. In May 2012, at age 52, he graduated with honors. As he told ABC News: “I have fulfilled half of my dream. Going to graduate school would complete it.” Filipaj plans to begin hitting the books again soon.

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Martha Mason: A polio victim enjoys boundless curiosity

Martha Mason graduated valedictorian of her high school and earned two college degrees at the top of the class—all while living her life in an iron lung. Paralyzed by polio at age 11 in 1948 and confined 23 hours a day in an immobile, 800-pound horizontal tube, the voracious reader stayed “endlessly curious”—and amazingly adaptable. Custom-built intercoms connected her to school and made her a “regular member” in her classes, with the technology helping her from high school through Wake Forest College (now University), where the English major arrived at her dorm room in a bakery truck. By the time she died in 2009, Mason had been in the
iron lung for a record-setting 60 years. “Something happens to all of us,” she said in
a documentary about her, Martha in Lattimore. “Mine is more visible than yours, but you have to deal with your things, too. None of us are exempt from things that would make us extraordinary people if the world knew the story.”

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Jacob Atem: A refugee orphan opens a clinic

In 2012, Jacob Atem opened the first medical clinic in Maar, South Sudan. “Health care was desperately needed in the village, because there was nothing at all,” he said. It was especially personal for Atem: At age six, after his parents were killed in the Sudanese Civil War, he had walked thousands of miles from Sudan to Ethiopia as the beginning of a harrowing nine-year odyssey through East African refugee camps. When he was eventually selected for a program to bring orphaned “Lost Boys” like him to the U.S., he “didn’t know where [the U.S.] was.” But he thrived, mastering English, graduating from Michigan’s Spring Arbor University, and—after founding the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization in 2008—starting his studies toward a Ph.D. in health services at the University of Florida. His plan? To gain the expertise that will allow his fledgling clinic to become a “model for the entire nation.”

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Nola Ochs: A great-grandma earns a master’s

The average college student spends four and a half years earning a bachelor’s degree, but Nola Ochs is far from average. She took her first class at Kansas’ Fort Hays State University in 1930—and wound up receiving her diploma 77 years later at age 95. The widowed great-grandmother of 15 even moved from her farm to an on-campus apartment in order to complete her last 30 hours of history and art classes. Even then Ochs, who has said she “just like[s] to study and learn,” wasn’t done. In 2010, the 98-year-old passed her final exams, turned in a 50-page research paper, and qualified for a master’s degree as well.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest