But make no mistake. Mary-Grace and her son, Chris Rusnak, took different paths to arrive at a shared milestone: Tidewater Community College graduation with honors.
Mary-Grace, 55, will graduate with a 4.0 GPA and an Associate of Science in Social Sciences with a focus in Psychology. She is a Coca-Cola Bronze Scholar – one of 50 in the nation – and received a medal for being a Top Ten All-Virginia Academic Team member. Mary-Grace has been the Treasurer of Phi Theta Kappa’s Psi Upsilon Chapter and has worked as a student ambassador.
Chris Rusnak, 20, will graduate with a 3.89 GPA and an Associate of Science in Social Sciences with a focus on International Relations. He has served as president of the Psi Upsilon Chapter and has been a peer mentor.
Neither anticipated attending TCC. Both are thrilled they did.
“I’m very appreciative of everything TCC has given me. I’ve loved every minute of it,” says Mary-Grace. “It does take a village to support my education.”
Her village at TCC has included President Emerita Deborah DiCroce, whom she says instilled her with a “can-do” attitude, Virginia Beach Provost Michael Summers, whom she credits with providing an atmosphere conducive to learning, and Professor Karl Oyster, whom she calls her mentor.
“He snagged me my first semester and said, ‘You’re going to go places,’ ” she says. “He’s supported me every step of the way.”
Her father, Lance Fair, husband Tom, daughter Katrina and Chris are also part of that village, and it was the children who pushed Mary-Grace into going to college in the first place.
“She’s a really, really intelligent lady; she home-schooled us for nine years,” Chris says. “For her not to have a college degree seemed crazy. So the arm twisting match started when I was getting ready to graduate high school.”
Mary-Grace agreed to take one class, but after orientation signed up for a full load. It was overwhelming at first, but she re-discovered how much she enjoyed learning.
Chris, a 2009 graduate of Catholic High School, initially attended Longwood, but a prolonged flu bug caused him to fall behind, so he withdrew at the end of the semester. Enrolling at TCC seemed like the best option.
Mother and son largely kept separate schedules, though they shared History 121 together, keeping their relationship quiet for a while, until the professor figured it out.
“We have different interests, different majors,” Chris says. “But we also have an adult-student relationship that’s unique for a mother and son.”
Both found the time they spent in Phi Theta Kappa particularly rewarding.
“It has been my favorite part of TCC,” Chris says. “My leadership skills are really solid thanks to Phi Theta Kappa. I learned how to speak easier in front of small groups.”
“Phi Theta Kappa kept me really busy, but it was fun being one of the inner circle working with Fred Valet, our awesome faculty advisor,” Mary-Grace says. “Participating in club activities definitely helped me meet a lot of really nice people.”
Chris plans to continue at William and Mary as a double major in economics and international relations. Mary-Grace has also been accepted at William and Mary, a school she realized was “my Harvard” the day she toured there with Katrina, who graduated magna cum laude in 2011. Mary-Grace would like to work toward a master’s in clinical psychology.
While their paths will continue to largely be separate, coming together on May 11 for TCC’s commencement exercises at the Constant Center will be special to both.
Admittedly, Mary-Grace hadn’t planned to walk in the ceremony, wanting it to be Chris’ day.
“I was hesitant because walking really is not me,” she says. “But I’m excited to be finishing something amazing that started with my basically walking in off the street.”
Chris rejected the notion of his mother overshadowing him in any way.
“We’re separate students,” he says. “She shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to walk because she’s my mom. She’s lived up to every expectation. Sometimes she sets a better example that I fail to follow.”