AMES, Iowa -- Tamara Benedict has some advice for women like herself who have survived an abusive relationship: Never give up. Go back to school and find your life's passion. Then do what you love.
Benedict speaks from experience. She has persevered through ordeals that few could fathom. On Saturday, the 43-year-old mother of five, who left a 10-year abusive marriage only to have a near-fatal car accident disrupt her dream of a college education, will receive her diploma from Iowa State University.
And she will graduate Magna Cum Laude with a degree in child, adult and family services.
When Benedict walks across the stage at Hilton Coliseum, she might recall the words of her high school counselor back in 1983, "You don't have the patience or the money to go to college."
Wrong about the patience
He was right about the money, but dead wrong about the patience.
"Patience, hard work, and a strong faith have gotten me through life," Benedict said.
And it has not been an easy life. Although now happily married to a father of two, Benedict's first marriage was in 1986 to a man she describes as "unstable and abusive." They had three children. By 1993, "he was not a big part of our lives," Benedict said, "and he just popped in when he wanted to."
So Benedict moved to her mother's farm in Minburn, found a job, paid the rent and supported herself and her young kids. They stayed there until 1995, when Habitat for Humanity built them a house in Perry. By 1996, her divorce was final. Her kids were 9, 7 and 5.
"I went to counseling after the divorce because my self esteem was very low," she said.
"My kids kept me going--they're my life," she said. "And I wasn't always there for them emotionally."
Benedict took classes through the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) in Boone.
"I earned a diploma in bookkeeping and accounting," she said. "I wanted to get a college degree, but I didn't think I ever would."
For seven years, Benedict worked as a customer service associate in a bank. With the encouragement of her high school-aged daughter, she took classes part time at DMACC, working toward a two-year business administration degree.
One day in May 2002, Benedict was driving to work in Des Moines on Highway 141.
"A 21-year-old man driving toward Perry at 120 mph lost control of his car," she said. "He crossed two lanes of traffic, jumped the median and hit me head-on. He was killed instantly."
Benedict's injuries were extensive. Her right ankle, right forearm, sternum, left clavicle and ribs were broken. She lost partial mobility in her right arm, and needed plates in her ankle, forearm and left clavicle.
"It was difficult for me because the driver was very young and I felt responsible, even though I knew it wasn't my fault," she said.
Benedict's recovery--both physical and emotional--took months. In lieu of a nursing home, she recuperated at her sister and brother-in-law's single-story house.
"I went from being totally independent to being totally dependent," she said.
One of the biggest disappointments: she had to drop out of DMACC. To make matters worse, Benedict's beloved career in banking was over because of her impaired mobility. She had to find a new career.
On to Iowa State
With the love and support of her second husband and her kids (and an extra-strong push from her daughter), Benedict enrolled at Iowa State. She chose a major that had touched her personally over the years -- child, adult and family services, specializing in services for youth.
"When my son had behavioral problems, there were not a lot of advocates for teens," Benedict said. "I believe that one mistake does not a bad kid make. I feel like there aren't a lot of people out there who see that."
And Benedict's son is proving her right. While she studied at Iowa State, he--along with his sister--attended college, as well. Her third child will start college next fall.
Family, job, class
For the four years she attended ISU, Benedict juggled family, a 30-hour-per-week job and a full class load.
Her professors, she said, provided "wonderful support and encouragement."
Benedict has worked since August in an internship at the Boone County SAFE Coalition, a Department of Human Services project for Substance Abuse Free Environment.
"I'm very excited about graduating. This is a lifelong dream," Benedict said.
Benedict hopes to find a job in state government, working with adolescents and administering public assistance programs. In the meantime, she and her husband are taking classes to become foster parents.