There was a day when Sarah Smith had no plans to graduate high school. At 16 and with a baby on the way, getting that diploma was a secondary concern.

But Smith dug deep and found her resolve. She finished high school and is now graduating from Missoula College with high honors, becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“It feels really good, considering that graduating from high school was almost a mercy,” she said. “Before I got pregnant, I wasn’t concerned with whether or not I was going to finish high school at all.”

Facing long odds as a student at Missoula’s Sentinel High School, Smith turned to the Young Families Program for help. The program no longer exists, but it helped her finish school.

Still, there were bumps in the road after high school. She got married at 19, had two more children and got divorced. It was then she considered her future.

“I was faced with having to provide for my family by myself,” she said. “I was determined to pick myself up.”

Smith went to work as a waitress at a local restaurant, but the restaurant closed. She found a job answering phones at a Missoula auto finance center. She excelled at the work, she said, and was soon appointed office manager.

The promotion gave Smith the courage to start her own business, but she realized she didn’t have the skills needed to make it successful.

“I started exploring options to go back to school and found Missoula College’s business management program,” she said. “With the welcoming environment and culture of Missoula College, I didn’t feel intimidated about becoming a student again.”

Smith made the best of the new opportunity. As a student at the college, she served as president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and held a seat as a senator on the Associated Students of the University of Montana – only the second Missoula College student to do so.

When Gov. Steve Bullock toured the Missoula College campus last year, Smith played a key role in the visit. Over the past year, she has emerged as a vocal advocate for the school’s offerings and needs.

Looking back over the experience, Smith admits that something clicked along the way.

“My children are watching me find success,” she said. “I’m a first-generation graduate and I feel I’ve made a difference in my family tree. My children will be better off, and their children will be better off.”

This Saturday, Smith will graduate from Missoula College with two associate degrees in business management. She’ll do so with honors and has already set her sights on a bachelor’s degree at the University of Montana – and a master’s degree after that.

Communications and psychology have piqued her interest, as has a career in teaching. They’ll blend well with business degrees, she said.

“It’s been incredibly difficult,” said Smith. “My children have their own needs and challenges. Trying to take care of that and my own needs at the same time without a partner has been very challenging. But I’ve had a lot of support from the faculty and staff at Missoula College.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at