In 2002, an expectant Lora Smith crossed the stage to receive an associate degree in surgical technology at Central Ohio Technical College (COTC). These days the associate professor sits amongst the college’s faculty watching “her kids” in the surgical technology program graduate. But in December 2022, this phrase took on a literal meaning as Lydia Fink, the daughter Smith carried 20 years ago at her own graduation, crossed the stage to receive the very same degree as her mother.
Smith takes a nonlinear path
Smith’s pathway through college and her career has been anything but straightforward. Coming from a small town, she was the first person in her family to graduate from high school. With high hopes for a career in the medical field, she tried one university and then another when the first didn’t work out.
“I tried the bigger campuses. Nobody knew who I was, and I didn’t know what I was doing,” Smith recalled. She was looking for an alternative when she stumbled upon COTC, whose small campus and two-year degree seemed more manageable. Smith proved successful in her third attempt and went to work in an oral surgery practice after graduating.
As her family grew, Smith paused her career in favor of being a stay-at-home mom. She dove into her children’s education, serving as a room mom and joining the PTO, which led Smith to a second career as a teacher in her children’s middle school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 2010, and then a master’s degree in curriculum and assessment in 2012.
In 2013, Smith’s divergent education and career paths collided with a fortuitous opportunity: A faculty position in COTC’s surgical technology program had just opened. She has maintained the position since then.
“The struggles that I had and everything that I’ve ever done and learned, I’ve used here in this role,” Smith said. “I do think that this is where I am supposed to be.”
It’s a job she takes personally. Smith sees bits of herself in the students — the single mom, the first-generation student, the student working two jobs – who face the same struggles and have the same dreams she once did.
“I know they’re adults, but these are my students. These are my kids. It means a lot to me that I can celebrate the small wins like passing a quiz or even being in class every day,” said Smith. “The small wins are big to them because it ultimately gives them the confidence and education for a degree that allows them to work in surgery and be financially able to take care of their families.”
Fink follows in her mother’s footsteps
As a middle school teacher, Smith taught three of the four children in her family at that time (today they have a blended family with eight children). But Fink got her turn once she was in college.
“This is a whole new thing for us as a relationship. It was weird, but I also enjoyed it because it was comforting to know that she was in my corner at home and also in the classroom,” Fink said. “Being able to have that one-on-one and connect over our careers has been really special.”
At first, Fink didn’t tell her classmates that their lab instructor was also her mother. She wanted to make her own path and her own friends. With different last names and their faces covered by masks (due to the existing Covid-19 pandemic regulations), it started off easy. Eventually, though, their similar mannerism and expressions gave away the façade.
“I have made some lifelong friends in the program and at the school. That’s very important to me because you need people to go through these things with, to help you out with schoolwork and cheer you on,” said Fink. As a younger student in the program just starting her career, she connected to older adults who were changing careers. “It’s just really cool to see how it brings you together with different people.”
While it’s been a great experience for both mother and daughter, that’s not why Fink chose to attend COTC. She was looking for a small school where she could get experience in a surgical career as a stepping stone toward her goal of becoming a physician assistant (PA).
“Everyone is so kind and genuine. The learning environment is challenging, but they’re willing to help you…meet your needs and how you like to learn,” said Fink. But her mom? “She was definitely a little bit harder on me. I’d ask her questions, and she answered my questions with a question.”
The tough love has left no hard feelings. Fink graduated with honors and was a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and the Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) National Honor Society. She is the third family member to become COTC alumnae; her older sister Clair received an associate degree in digital media design technology in 2021. This January, Fink began her bachelor’s degree in health sciences (pre-med) at The Ohio State University while she works at Onyx and Pearl Surgical Suites.
This article originally appeared here.