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In the pursuit of a better future, Daniela Hales made the journey from Colombia to the United States 11 years ago with $300 in her pocket and a carry-on bag.

This Friday, she will graduate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Hales will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history.

Next fall, she hopes to begin working on her law degree at UT’s College of Law.

The university will award 1,170 undergraduate degrees, 654 graduate degrees, six law degrees, and three veterinary medicine degrees during this week’s commencement ceremonies. Graduate hooding will take place at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, December 14, and undergraduate commencement will take place at 9 a.m. Friday, December 15. Both events will be held in Thompson-Boling Arena. ROTC cadets also will be commissioned during the undergraduate ceremony.

Hales grew up in La Chiquita, a small village in southern Colombia. Although she has been in the United States since 2006, she remembers her hometown well. There was a lack of public services—no primary care clinic, telephones, churches, or library. Homes were made of adobe, and while electricity was common, electrical appliances were not.

She and her brother had to walk for an hour to the nearby elementary school in another village. She finished high school but realized she could not continue her education in Colombia. She decided to come to the United States on a travel visa with the small amount of money she had saved. She obtained a green card, then earned her US citizenship in 2012.

In 2013, Hales found a full-time job at the UT Student Health Center. Thanks to the university’s employee tuition waiver program and supportive supervisors, she took classes during her lunch breaks and after work and hasn’t been on vacation in four years.

Tough as it was, would she do it all over again?

“Absolutely,” Hales said.

“Of course I wish I was I was 20 instead of 40, but what I have accomplished here in 11 years I didn’t accomplish in Colombia in almost 30 years.”

While usually the oldest student in her classes, Hales still enjoyed the friendships she built with younger students.

“I have friends who have struggled or wanted to quit school,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to say, ‘You are young and you have this chance. You can do it now, just push.'”

If accepted to law school, Hales will continue to work in the Student Health Center until her law classes begin next fall. With a law degree, she hopes to serve other people who need a helping hand here in Tennessee.

“After all the places I have searched for opportunities, there is no other place I want to be but here. Tennessee is home for me. I aspire to be able to give back to those who, like me, struggled for years, or decades, in the pursuit of their dreams.”