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As Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College’s graduates walked up to receive their diplomas, a brother and sister took that trip together.

About 300 OCtech students were scheduled to receive degrees, diplomas or certificates on Tuesday evening at South Carolina State University’s Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center.

For Darlene Smith of Norway and her older brother Martin Ryant of Branchville, it was the end of one long journey and the beginning of another.

“I graduated high school 20 years ago, and it was 18 years before I returned to school,” Smith said.

“It’s been hard and I have four school-age children, five children all together.”

She made a decision to make a better life for herself and her family.

“Just one day I decided, instead of just talking about going back to school, I decided to go back,” she said.

Once she got there, she said she was able to “jump in and go at it.”

Majoring in general business and accounting, she plans to go on to Claflin University in the fall.

“I’m excited but nervous,” she said. “I’m excited for a new journey, but ... when I first started, I didn’t think I would be able to make it this far.

“But I was determined. I had a made-up mind that no matter what it took and what sacrifices I had to make, I was going to do what I needed to do to better myself and better my family.”

Smith said she had a big part in convincing her brother to go back to school as well.

“She talked me into it in the beginning,” Ryant said. “I wasn’t about to go back to college.”

Smith said she brought him along while she registered for classes so he could get a feel for the campus.

“I even gave him a program book where he could look over stuff,” she said.

“By the time I was finished registering, he was like ‘I think I’m going to give it a try.’”

Ryant is a father of three who graduated high school in 1997.

“So coming back to college was like a whole different ball game for me,” he said. “But it’s been great.”

He continued to work 12-hour shifts at a full-time job while attending OCtech. A mechatronics major, he said he plans to see where his robotics degree takes him.

“It’s pretty interesting and the field is wide open,” he said. “Right now I’m just searching to see what direction to go in.”

He said that companies like Volvo and Mercedes are looking for robotics technicians, “so that’s kind of what I’m leaning towards.”

Smith’s husband and Ryant’s eldest daughter are also currently students at the college.

Smith said she is thankful for everyone who has helped her on her way – God, her family and her “OCtech family.”

Keynote speaker Harry Ott – a farmer, former politician and current president of the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation -- mentioned students like Smith and Ryant in his speech on what he called “this very important day in your life.”

“I look across the crowd and I wonder how many different journeys y’all have taken to get to the exact, same spot that you are in tonight,” Ott said.

“Some of you probably came just straight out of high school, planning to get another degree.”

“Some of you may have gone and started a family on your own and then realized, ‘You know, if I’m going to take better care of my family, I need to improve my education.’”

“Some of you may have just been living at home and decided, ‘You know what, I need to get away from mama and daddy, so I better go to school.’”

All the graduates have followed different paths, he said, but are now gathered to receive their degrees.

Ott urged the graduates to not fear change but to embrace it as they make their way in the world.

Prior to his election as the sixth president of the SCFB in December 2015, Ott served as state director of the USDA Farm Service Agency and was a member of the S.C. House of Representatives for 15 years representing District 93, which covers parts of Calhoun, Orangeburg and Lexington counties.

Contact the writer: chuff@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5543.

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