It seemed fitting that 27-year-old Willow Abrahamson Jack was the first to walk across the stage and receive her bachelor's degree Friday during Haskell Indian Nations University's commencement ceremony.
That's because fellow students, teachers and family say she is a leader and an inspiration.
"When I see what Willow has went through, it's incredible to finally see this day," said her mother, Rose Ann Abrahamson, of Sacramento, Calif. "She persevered despite the many challenges and obstacles that she had to face."
About three years ago, Willow lost her husband, Daryl, and 4-year-old daughter, Maliah, in a rollover accident near Butte, Mont. She and her son, Nakeezaka, who was 6 at the time, survived, but Willow suffered severe injuries to her spine, pelvic region and head. Doctors told Willow, an award-winning jingle dancer, that she would need a wheelchair or walker.
"I was feeling like the whole world was caving in. It was like I was living a real-life nightmare, something I would never want to see anybody go through," she said.
"It was a really, really, really hard time. All of my hopes and dreams were completely crushed. I felt like giving up."
What kept her going was a visit a month after the deaths from the Dalai Lama, who after hearing her story wanted to meet her. He reminded Willow that she still had a son and happiness to share.
"It was a humbling experience," she said.
In fall 2006, she returned to Haskell where she and Daryl had earned associate's degrees just months before the fatal accident.
"I decided I can't be sitting there acting like a crybaby. I am the mother and the father now. I have a child to raise. I've got to quit this road of self pity," she said.
Just as Willow and Nakeezaka were settling down and "things were fine," tragedy struck again. They were in another rollover accident last June on the South Lawrence Trafficway. They were taken by helicopter to Kansas City hospitals. Her son broke his arm and femur. She shattered her pelvic region and her right knee. Doctors, again, told her that she would need a wheelchair or walker.
"I thought about giving up a lot last summer," she said. "But, me and my son - we helped each other."
Willow said she often thought of the passage: "This too shall pass."
On Friday, she walked across the stage with Nakeezaka, who will turn 9 on Mother's Day. Both waved to the cheering crowd with big smiles on their faces. The announcer read that Willow dedicated her graduation to her son and daughter. She graduated magna cum laude.
"This is like completing that walk that I wish they could have been here for. This was our plan for our family," she said.
Today, she will be the head lady dancer at Haskell's powwow - a high honor. Last month, she helped organize Haskell's first Indigenous Empowerment Summit.
Her sister, Leela Abrahamson, 17, said she admires Willow and her accomplishments.
"She's amazing and always has a positive aura," Leela said. "She's one of those women who leads by example."
Willow will pursue a master's degree in social work at Kansas University in the fall. She would like to establish community-based programs on American Indian reservations and work on preserving Native American culture and traditions.
"Whether I make pennies or I don't make anything, I don't really care because it's about living a happy life," she said.