Young daughter gets chance to participate in mom's graduation

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By Diane Gasper-O'Brien
All Misty Roper wanted was to have her young daughter watch her mom cross the stage to receive her diploma. She had no idea a simple email asking if someone could watch 5-year-old Natilee would get such a big response.

Roper graduated with a bachelor's degree Saturday through Fort Hays State University's Virtual College. And Natilee got to watch her mom cross the stage and shake hands with President Mirta M. Martin.

Roper, a single mom, lives three and a half hours from Hays in Wellington. And before Saturday, she had never set foot on the FHSU campus.

Roper will complete work on her bachelor's of general studies, with an emphasis in early childhood development, this summer. With her graduation approaching this semester, Roper asked a cousin to hang out with Natilee at graduation. When that plan fell through, and with no other family member to help her out, Roper thought she wouldn't be able to make the trip to Hays.

Then she emailed FHSU's Virtual College, explaining her situation. In a meeting with his staff, Virtual College Director Dennis King asked if anyone was available to help.

Nicole Frank, coordinator of adjunct support and engagement for the Virtual College, spoke up immediately.

"I said, yes, I'd do it, and then I had to quit talking, I was getting choked up," Frank said. Frank's reaction came from remembering her own experience as a single mom.

She was receiving her master's degree from Colorado State University a few years ago and wanted her 5-year-old twins, William and Elizabeth Noble, to be present to watch.
Frank wasn't able to find anyone to watch the twins during graduation, so they didn't get to participate in their mother's big day.

Frank said she wanted to make sure that didn't happen this time around, so she began conversation with Roper via email.

"I was shocked," Roper said. "They emailed me just a couple days later, and I was tickled to death."

Thinking Natilee would be more comfortable with another young girl present, Frank asked her own daughter, Elizabeth, now 8, if she wanted to go to graduation with her and help with Natilee.

"She was thrilled," Frank said. "She just loves children, and she's wishing she could babysit right now for a living."

While Frank and Roper talked on the phone several times, they hadn't met in person before Saturday morning.

"I was a little nervous, because I had never left her with anyone," Roper said as the group gathered behind the lower bleachers before graduation.

However, Roper said that Frank's and Elizabeth's enthusiasm made her feel comfortable leaving her daughter with strangers. Natilee appeared to feel right at home as well as she waved at her mom and followed her newfound friends, with a backpack she and her mom had packed at home.

Staff in the Virtual College had also assembled a bag of black and gold FHSU mementos for Natilee, such as balloons, a water bottle, beads, shoe laces, a pom pon and T-shirts. The bag of goodies and Natilee's stash in her backpack -- and Elizabeth -- kept the youngster busy during the ceremony that lasted more than two and a half hours. And they were there more than a half hour early.

"I can't believe how good she's being," Frank said, admitting that her own daughter had a lot to do with that. "I told Elizabeth she could choose where to eat afterwards."

Sitting high in the stands at Gross Memorial Coliseum, Natilee asked to be lifted up because she couldn't see over all the people when the graduates arched in. Looking down on the coliseum floor, Natilee kept asking, "Where's mommy?" and waved to any graduate who acknowledged the crowd.

"I had really built it up beforehand," Roper said. "I had told her I would get to walk across the stage and shake hands with the president and that it was a really big deal."

As Roper approached the stage, Frank and Elizabeth held up a sign they had made, stating, "Good Job Mommy," while holding Natilee so she could watch her mom.

"I see Mommy!" she said, a big smile across her face. "Hey, Mommy," she shouted, waving. Roper, of course, could neither see nor hear her daughter. But she knew she was there. Roper said she couldn't thank Frank enough for making that possible.

"It gave me such peace of mind," Roper said.

"I hope other single moms have the courage to go to school," added Roper, who is thinking about starting work on her master's immediately. Roper said. "That's what pushed me through, to walk across the stage and have my daughter see me."

Cutline: Pic 1: Elizabeth Noble, Hays, shows Natilee Roper, Wellington, how to hold a sign congratulating her mom at Saturday's Fort Hays State University graduation. Pic 2: Misty Roper and her daughter, Natilee, left, Wellington, meet with Nicole Frank and her daughter, Elizabeth Noble, before Saturday's graduation at Fort Hays State University.



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