MOUNT VERNON — For Lucy and Elizabeth Kesterson, their graduation today from Skagit Valley College will be cause for celebration.
It’s a moment the mother and daughter couldn’t have imagined after years of adversity.
In early 2015, Allen Kesterson — Lucy’s husband and Elizabeth’s father — was murdered. A year later, Lucy, Elizabeth and Jefferson, Lucy’s 14-year-old son, became homeless.
“It’s amazing,” said the 18-year-old Elizabeth. “We get to walk next to each other. When we get that diploma, we’ll get to look back at each other and know we did it together.”
For Elizabeth, receiving her associate degree and high school diploma today is just a stepping-stone on the path to being a director of theatrical productions.
For 41-year-old Lucy, an associate degree is the first of her educational goals, which include getting bachelor’s degrees in human services and diversity law and justice at Western Washington University, followed by a master’s in public policy.
During the graduation ceremony today, Lucy will don a bright red cap, decorated to reflect a quote by T.S. Eliot: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
Following Allen Kesterson’s murder, Lucy plunged into a crippling depression
“It really felt like an end,” she said.
Elizabeth picked up the pieces, making sure Jefferson was fed and taken care of. And at 5 a.m. each school day, she’d take the bus from Concrete to the college campus in Mount Vernon, and often waited 30 minutes in the cold before the buildings were unlocked.
“I wanted to do well for myself because I had seen my grandmother put aside her life for her mom and never pick it back up,” Elizabeth said. “I did not want that for me.”
Elizabeth said she felt alone as her mother battled with depression. She simultaneously faced the daunting task of navigating college as the first in her family to go to college.
“The role models in my life had a strenuous experience with education, and it was really important to me that I not only go, but succeed in college and make that a priority for myself,” Elizabeth said.
In the spring of 2016, the man accused of killing Allen Kesterson was put on trial.
Elizabeth chose to attend the three-week trial and two-week sentencing rather than go to class. When the school year ended, she found some instructors had failed her based on attendance.
“I had this image in my head of what success would look like in education, and that’s not what happened for me,” Elizabeth said.
But what Elizabeth saw as failure, Lucy saw as inspiration.
“I was just so proud of her and impressed with what she was doing,” Lucy said.
In the months following her husband’s murder, Lucy said she kept trying to fix her past. She soon realized that all she did was change her future.
Since dropping out of school in the eighth grade, she had prioritized work and family over education.
But when Lucy, Elizabeth and Jefferson secured housing through Family Promise of Skagit Valley, going back to school became feasible. And the organization encouraged her to go back to school.
“It is interesting going from encouraging other people, to being able to accept that encouragement for myself,” Lucy said.
She enrolled at Skagit Valley College in the fall of 2017. Within weeks she was the president of the Human Services Club and had become friends within other human services students.
“She was literally healthier than she has ever been in my life. ... I was extremely proud of her,” Elizabeth said.
But that success opened old wounds for Elizabeth, who was still struggling to acclimate to college.
“I was a little jealous for myself because I had wished she had been in a better head space previously to help me,” Elizabeth said.
During finals week of Lucy’s first quarter, Elizabeth said Lucy told her, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize how unsupportive I was being in your education by encouraging you not to do your homework.”
Elizabeth said she didn’t blame her mother.
“It was kind of a laughing matter that we were both finally at a place where it was like, ‘Yeah, you did that, but it’s OK,’” she said.
In the years that followed, Elizabeth and Lucy found themselves.
Elizabeth discovered how to turn her lifelong love of acting and theater into a career when she directed her first play. She also currently serves on the Associated Students of SVC program board and as vice president of the SVC Rainbow Alliance, a club that supports the college’s LGBTQ community.
Lucy has served in leadership positions for a variety of clubs and services, including the Dream Conference, the Red Group and the college’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa. She is one of two Skagit Valley College students this year to be named to the 2019 All-Washington Academic Team through Phi Theta Kappa.
Mother and daughter have also found each other.
“We did it together,” Elizabeth said. “We encouraged each other along the way to make it happen and that’s more important to me than the actual degree. The experience ... has really made us a lot closer. I’m a better person for it.”
“You know, I think I am, too,” Lucy said.