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A new college graduate emerges after a fight over tuition debt

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Ashley Whorf.
Ashley Whorf.

The last time I saw Ashley Whorf, we were sitting in the sun-dappled atrium of the sparkling campus center at UMass Boston. Here's the first thing I noticed: Her knees were shaking.

"There were nights I was crying,'' she told me then. "I thought I was going to be poor the rest of my life.''

It was mid-September and I had come to speak to her about a summons she had received from her old school, Simmons College. They were suing her over an outstanding $24,000 debt. The school dropped its lawsuit a few hours after I called to inquire about it.

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As America's college capital primps itself for the 2016 commencement ceremonies that soon will play out in stadiums, auditoriums, and quadrangles across Boston, I caught up with Ashley again on Tuesday.

Her knees have stopped shaking. There is a new confidence in her voice. In a few weeks, she'll walk across the stage at the TD Garden, completing a journey that is nothing less than breathtaking.

There is, of course, a story behind each mortar-boarded graduate about to collect that bachelor's degree. The dyslexic young woman who wondered how she'd ever achieve – and then did. The young man who decided to serve his country first and then stepped out of uniform and into a college dormitory.

Every time you adjust your field of vision a few degrees, you'll see stories of second chances — soaring tales of kids who grew into adulthood and excelled against odds that few bookmakers would dare calculate.

That's Ashley's Whorf's story, too.

Her parents were drug addicts when her father took off when she was just 2. Her mother stayed but was in and out of trouble as often as Ashley was in and out friend's homes, group homes, and, for a time, a loving foster home.

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When she applied to Simmons, her essay doubtlessly left admissions counselors dumbfounded. "Considering the statistics,'' it began, "I've beaten the odds. My future as an independent woman began for me in the fall of seventh grade, after my mother threw me out of her house, and chose drugs and alcohol over me. It was a decision that I'll never understand, but that's what happened.''

Then this is what happened: She got into Simmons but struggled immediately. "At that time, my mother was in trouble and she was in a homeless shelter,'' she said. "My study habits were not on par with what my test scores said. What they didn't take into account is all the stuff that happened to me didn't go away because I got into this prestigious place.''

She and Simmons parted ways – and eventually put that $24,000 debt behind them – but Ashley Whorf did not give up. She found her way to Roxbury Community College in 2011. And in 2013, she enrolled at UMass Boston, where she juggled school work and a full-time job while acquiring an interest in criminal justice.

"To be honest with you, it doesn't make any sense,'' she told me. "It doesn't make any sense that I'm here and other people who have had similar things happen to them aren't here. What is different about my life as opposed to someone else who grew up with these challenges?''

Talk about challenges. Three of her uncles have died from drug overdoses. An aunt succumbed to AIDS. "I could have easily gone down a path that led in a different direction,'' she said. "I could have been sitting in a park homeless.''

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Except she isn't. She's finishing up her degree at a place that once intimidated the young woman who grew up in Brookline and rode buses and the T to classes.

"When I get my degree, I'm going to be thinking: Thank God,'' she said.

That's going to happen next month when Ashley Whorf, 26, walks across the stage, carrying her diploma and – like her fellow graduates – achievements that will make her a worthy ambassador of UMass.

It's enough to make you stand up and cheer.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.