Terra Gamache didn’t plan on graduating college at the same time as her daughter.
A stay-at-home mom over the past 14 years, the 41-year-old Spokane native decided to enroll at Spokane Community College to get back into the workforce, as her children were in school full time. She went on to earn an associate degree only after shifting her career path and responding to a cancer diagnosis.
Terra’s daughter Alyssa Gamache, meanwhile, was a year into studying as a physical therapy assistant before changing her program, eventually earning an associate degree with the goal of becoming a beautician.
All of that led to Friday, where Terra and Alyssa donned caps and gowns for their graduation ceremonies at the Arena.
Alyssa went first Friday afternoon as Spokane Falls Community College awarded 1,480 degrees and certificates to graduating students this year as well as 148 associate degrees for Running Start students. SCC, meanwhile, conferred more than 1,700 degrees and certificates to graduating students along with 182 associate degrees for Running Start students.
SCC and SFCC also invited graduates from 2020 and 2021 who had virtual graduations due to the pandemic to walk the stage Friday.
The day capped off a graduation marathon for the Gamache family, who also celebrated the elementary school graduation of Terra’s 11-year-old son Landon the day before the college commencements.
“It’s gonna be a long day,” Terra said Wednesday, “but I’m excited to share it with her.”
While Terra was keen from the start to brush up on her computer skills and find a job outside of retail, an associate degree wasn’t initially in the cards.
She initially enrolled in SCC’s front office professional certificate program in 2018 just to familiarize herself with common software. Terra said a counselor talked her into changing over to the two-year administrative office management program, which involves coursework like business writing and computer application courses.
Terra went on to earn an associate in administrative office management and administrative assisting, with certificates in project management and business writing.
“I pretty much had to start all over again from scratch,” Terra said. “It ended up taking me about three years to finish, which was fine. I loved being back in the classroom and learning, so I wanted to continue that process.”
The associate program is typically for those with some experience in an office environment who want management leadership positions – the types above administrative assistant-level jobs, said business technology instructor Janelle Brooke, who had Terra as a student in several of her classes.
Brooke recalls approaching Terra to suggest taking the more advanced associate program – only to find she already made the choice.
“From the very first class that we had together, she just demonstrated herself to be mature, certainly, but also genuinely eager to learn. Not just to pass a class and not just to get a degree,” Brooke said. “Her attention to detail was famous throughout the department, and her fastidiousness in making sure that she understood instructions.”
Coincidentally, what Terra learned from her computer-centric courses made the transition to virtual learning through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that much easier, she said.
“That first year of the pandemic, having both of my kids at home and trying to do schoolwork while I was also focused on them, too – I spent a lot of nights up very, very, very late,” Terra said. “That’s when I got all of my writing done: after everybody went to bed.”
Meanwhile, Alyssa said the changeover to virtual learning wasn’t difficult.
The Mead High School graduate hopes to study cosmetology at the Glen Dow Academy in Spokane.
“Most of my professors pushed students to go out of their comfort zones in certain aspects, which is something I really enjoyed,” Alyssa said of her time at SFCC. “They could see that you could achieve anything if you put your mind to it and just go above and beyond the bare minimum.”
With just two more classes left in her program, Terra would have graduated last year had she not been diagnosed with breast cancer.
She was just a few weeks into winter quarter that February when she got the news, with her oncologist advising her to take a year off for treatment, which included chemotherapy, radiation treatment and surgery.
Though everything was clear following a surgery in August, Terra said she is scheduled for follow-up scans next month.
The more positive prognosis, nevertheless, allowed Terra to finish up this past spring.
But perhaps it’s not the end of her time at SCC. Terra said she wouldn’t mind working for the college – or even another school – someday as a way to give back and “make a difference for somebody else” for the amount of love and support she got from the faculty and staff during her time as a student.
“My instructors have been phenomenal. I received a lot more support than I ever thought was possible,” she said. “It’s kind of just been a place of healing in a lot of different ways for me. … They make it possible for anybody to go back and do something to better themselves.”
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