Recent college graduate Katelyn Paige Vander Plas is ready to go out into the world and find a job as a registered nurse!
Recent college graduate Katelyn Paige Vander Plas is ready to go out into the world and find a job as a registered nurse!
On Thursday, Dec. 13, and Friday, Dec. 14, I had the opportunity to join my brother's family and my parents for a short getaway to Winona. While it wasn't the best timing when it comes to holidays and crazy newspaper deadlines, the time allowed us to celebrate the accomplishments of one of my favorite people, my niece, Katelyn.

She was among 55 nursing students to be honored at a pinning ceremony on Thursday evening and one of 450 students to graduate from Winona State University on Friday morning.

Even though we live only an hour from Winona, my parents and I decided to stay at a hotel with my brother and his family for the two days of the ceremonies.

It was a great escape from a very stressful time, but most of all, it was wonderful to devote that time to what I love most - my family.

I was thrilled to attend Katelyn's high school graduation just three-and-a-half short years ago and was glad to once again be there for one of her life's milestones. I know as she gets older and pursues her own career, I may not be able to be there for every special occasion in her life. So, being at this one meant the world to me.

Thursday's pinning ceremony was my favorite of the two ceremonies simply because it was more intimate and more focused on the nursing students. We saw photos of each student with an inspirational quote and watched as they recieved a pin that signifies their completion of the nursing program at Winona.

Katelyn wasn't the only student I knew there as I watched Lindsay Anderson from Mabel and Kayla Hongerholt from Lanesboro also be honored. It was fun to hear some other familiar names as we celebrated all the nursing students' and their success.

Following that ceremony, my family, Katelyn and a few of her friends enjoyed dinner together at a local restaurant. It was the first of many meals we would share over the weekend. It seemed our celebration, like many, included a lot of eating. We definitely sampled some of Winona's finest restaurants!

The next morning, we were out of the motel bright and early and at the university to get good seats for the graduation ceremony.

I was anxious and excited. I was equipped with my camera and tissues, but didn't use either too much.

When Katelyn came into the auditorium, she was seated at the opposite side as where we were, but she had asked us to sit there so we could get photos of her coming off the stage with her diploma. Not seeing her march into "Pomp and Circumstance" actually saved me a few tears as I didn't connect the emotion of that song with her at that time. If I had seen her when hearing those prestigious notes, I know I would have been weeping! That's just how I am. Just the song made me tear up!

The ceremony was very long. The student speaker, a nursing student as well, did a great job of inspiring her fellow graduates. The other speaker was not as eloquent and received cheers from the audience and the graduates only when he said, "In conclusion. . . ."

I felt badly for him because I'm sure he meant to make some sort of point in his speech, but he lost it somewhere in translation. I thought back to my own college graduation, nearly 20 years ago, and could not recall a single word of our speaker's message nor even who that speaker was. So perhaps it is common not to be inspired by our commencement speakers?

At least he didn't move me to tears - my tissue supply was still intact. Well, until I saw my beautiful niece, in her cap and gown, walking across the stage. As they called her name and she accepted her diploma, my eyes overflowed with a mixture of pride, love and even a bit of envy.

I thought about what a wonderful time in her life this will be. There are so many opportunities and so many directions her life can go. She will be faced with difficult decisions and, likely, some stressful times as she chooses a job and finds a new place to live.

While I remember those months following my graduation to be full of resumes, job applications and working three part-time jobs until something better came along, it was stressful but exciting as I thought about where my life could go. That excitement and the new possibilities are what I envy the most.

So, I did have to pull out the tissues as she walked by with her diploma and once again as the band struck up their tune for the recessional because it finally hit me that my niece was all grown up and ready to go out into the world.

Following the ceremony, my niece had lunch plans with her mother's side of the family so the rest of us went out on our own and enjoyed the afternoon at the motel, some swimming while the rest of us did a bit of last-minute graduation present shopping!

We gathered for dinner at Jefferson's in Winona, a favorite spot of ours throughout the years Katelyn was in Winona. We both love their cornbread and each had a piece in honor of what may likely have been our last meal there - at least together.

As Katelyn went off with her friends to celebrate, the rest of us went back to the hotel and spent a quiet night together, each of us reflecting on what had been a great day. As a family, we were proud of our graduate and are confident she will become a wonderful and caring nurse. She is already a compassionate individual and with the skills and education she has received at Winona State, I know she will make a positive impact on the patients she encounters throughout her career.

We parted ways on Saturday morning with my parents and I bringing my nephew, Joshua, back to Harmony with us and my brother, sister-in-law and niece Allison going to Rochester for a special robotics competition for Allison.

My parents entertained Joshua on their farm with their animals while I checked into work and wrote a quick story in preparation for our holiday issue this past week.

After a few hours, we needed to return Joshua to his parents so ventured out into the fog and once again met them for a quick meal before returning to our respective homes and leaving our weekend escape from reality.

It was a bittersweet weekend as I was so happy for her to be completing this part of her life, but sad because I have enjoyed having her so close to us where we have been able to visit her often. Even my trips to Winona for my Habitat for Humantiy board meetings won't be the same as Katelyn and I had a standing dinner date after my meeting concluded.

I'll surely miss having Katelyn nearby, but that sadness pales in comparison to the pride and joy I have for her. I wish her all the love and success in the world and I am so glad I was able to be involved in this wonderful celebration of this milestone.