Karen Sarai Gonzalez came to the United States from Mexico when she was 16 years old knowing little English.
Since then, she has learned a new language, made new friends, become part of a second family and earned a degree.
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Gonzalez, 23, was one of about 400 graduates honored at Elgin Community College Saturday, earning an associate of applied science degree in nursing.
She spoke during the college's second ceremony of the day where those who completed career and technical programs were awarded degrees and certificates.
Earlier in the day, students who earned transfer degrees walked the graduation stage.
Gonzalez told her peers life is like an electrocardiogram. When the line is flat, it means we're dead.
"When it goes up and down, it is just a reminder to tell us we are alive," Gonzalez said.
The Elgin woman has made it through her share of ups and downs in the last few years, but it is safe to say her time at ECC has been full of high points.
She graduated from Larkin High School with low ACT scores and a questionable future with no immediate plans even for where she'd live.
But ambition and hard work have pushed her to become a leader in student government and the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.
She won the Elgin Unsung Hero award from the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce, earned a handful of scholarships and became Miss Spartan.
At the end of her speech, Gonzalez told her peers to accept the ups and downs of life.
"They are not tests," Gonzalez said. "They are assignments that will prepare you for when the final test comes."