Brandon Romero already graduated from the school of hard knocks. Soon he'll be a University of Arizona grad, too.
To begin with, things were rough for Romero. He grew up poor, got into trouble, dropped out of high school and got his girlfriend pregnant.
But he took charge of his life, got into college, and turned it all around.
Today Romero, 30, will be honored as a Centennial Achievement award winner at the UA's winter commencement ceremony. His turn to accept a diploma will come in May.
"something to live for"
Growing up, Romero was a good student until his home life fell apart. His parents divorced when he was in middle school and his mom worked low-paying odd jobs.
Living on donated clothing and food boxes motivated him to make money any way he could, he said. So he started blowing off school work and getting involved in drugs and gangs at school.
"I remember begging my mom to let me drop out so I didn't end up getting myself killed," he said.
He quit Amphitheater High School at age 16.
"I wasn't really thinking about a future. I was just trying to make money however I could. … I honestly didn't care one way or another if I did have a tomorrow," Romero said.
A wake-up call came when his daughter was born with holes in her heart and a high fever in 2002.
"They handed her to me and I was crying," he said. "… I walked outside the hospital praying and wondering what was going to happen."
By the baby's first Christmas, the holes had healed on their own and Romero's heart had healed some, too.
"I had something to live for," he said.
He earned a veterinary assistant certificate from Pima Medical Institute, got work in an animal clinic and worked his way up to better work he hoped his daughter could be proud of, he said.
"He's got it all"
Then life handed Romero another blow in 2008.
A vehicle went through a stop sign and hit Romero's car, injuring him.
He had temporary neurological damage and couldn't work, so he went back to school.
Romero took classes at Pima Community College and got into the UA.
He surprised himself by earning A's in his family and consumer-sciences education degree program and becoming an honors student. He worked with a support group for kids at La Paloma Family Services.
He's the president of Sigma Alpha Lambda Honors Society and has received many awards and scholarships.
He also volunteers as a preschool teacher's aide.
"I just like watching the light bulbs turn on," he said. "When you see something click for them, it's awesome."
He will spend his last semester of college teaching education job skills to teenage mothers.
Romero clings to the advice given to him by his role model, retired stockbroker Bob Baker, who encouraged him to go back to school: "All you have to do is go as far as you can, and then take one more step."
"He's a very compassionate person, extremely smart, and a great deal of integrity and honesty," Baker said. "I just think he's got it all."
UA winter commencement
• When: 9 a.m. today
• Where: McKale Memorial Center
• Speaker: Betsey Bayless, former Arizona secretary of state
• Degrees to be awarded: 2,708 bachelor's, 328 master's, 610 doctoral, 21 law degrees and two doctor of medicine degrees.
• Centennial Achievement award winners: Constance Bracewell, Patty Gámez, Aretha Matt and Brandon Romero.
Contact reporter Becky Pallack at email@example.com or 807-8012.