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My daughter Katheryn Faith Knoff graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Saturday with a degree in environmental studies, a minor in biology and a GIS certificate. Am I proud? Beyond words.

And as I watched her walk across the stage to receive her diploma, I started thinking of how she begged me to buy her Hooked on Phonics because she couldn’t read. She was three. And while her passion to read burned bright, I didn’t buy it for her. We went to the library, scooped up a ton of books and read together. I did this intentionally. I didn’t want her to just learn how to read. I wanted her to fall in love with reading, hear the sound of her momma’s voice, and know that stories matter.

But Katie’s educational journey has always been on her own terms. And when I served more as the guide, she took more pride in knowing her own story. Her moments of awe were frequent. When she was six, she told me at the library that she was going to go to China when she was grew up.

“Can I come too?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “You don’t know how to speak Chinese. See, I have a book and I’m going to learn that. But don’t worry mom, you can learn too.”

So she’s pretty much been in charge of her education and I’ve been along for the ride… even if she struggled. When I would pick her up from school I would ask her how she was doing and she would tell me. “Well, I’m getting a D now, but only because I didn’t do well on (fill in the blank). But don’t worry mom, I have a plan.”

And she did most of the time. She didn’t always get the best grades, but I knew she was pushing herself and the struggle was OK.

When I tried to manage her, she’d often push back. “I got this mom,” she said. But when I saw her stress level soar, I encouraged her to lighten the load. So in her senior year of high school, I told her it was her call if she wanted to do physics and I would support her in whatever decision she made. I wanted her to take responsibility for her education because I knew that she would do better if she owned it.

In college she initially majored in bio-chemistry and my only role was stress relief. I checked in often and knew she had lost focus because she hadn’t found her why. There were moments when she struggled with what direction she was headed. Calculus 2… not her thing and when she came to me, the best advice I could give her: Figure out if this is what you want to do and find your why. If bio-chemistry is your passion and calculus is the only barrier, then you’ll figure it out. But if it isn’t what you want, choose another direction.

So she took several community-based learning classes. She volunteered at the Riverbend Nature Center, the WATERshed program, and helped write an environmental assessment for the City of Racine. She also spent several weeks conducting research and studying the ecosystem of the Rocky Mountains. And she learned that she really wants a career where she is outside and science-based.

She hasn’t made to China yet, but she did go to Thailand as part of her community-based learning class.

Now she’s achieved that goal. So yes… I’m a proud momma today. And I can’t wait to see what happens in the next chapter of her life. She decided to intern with the City of Kenosha in their forestry department this summer while she looks for a job. That’s my girl. Always thinking of her next move. Her adventure starts Monday.

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.