This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Candice Williams was slightly shocked when Jirapat Sakkaphun entered her office last fall to discuss an education at Salt Lake Community College.
Sakkaphun, a petite 80-year-old woman from Thailand, wanted to join the college's certified nurse assistant program after nearly two decades as an in-home aide to elderly and sick patients.
Her will to help others led Sakkaphun to earn a nursing assistant certificate earlier this year. She'll be among 4,703 graduates walking into a new future at the college's commencement ceremony Friday, at the Maverik Center in West Valley City.
The ceremony's keynote speaker, actress and activist Diane Guerrero, offered graduates a message of civic duty and relentless pursuit of ones dreams and the betterment of others. Known for her roles in the hit shows "Orange is the New Black" and "Jane the Virgin," the actress also gave graduates one last assignment Friday morning.
"Get involved," she told them. "And stay involved."
During the ceremony, Guerrero and SLCC president Deneece Huftalin recognized Sakkaphun and six other students as "graduates of excellence." Sakkaphun story, in particular, has inspired fellow students and faculty alike.
"Now when students tell me 'I'm too old to be here, I know,' I tell them there are no excuses here anymore," said Williams, who coordinates SLCC's nursing assistant program.
In The Globe Online, SLCC's student newspaper, Eric Heiser, dean of SLCC's School of Applied Technology & Technical Specialties, called Sakkaphun "the textbook definition of a lifelong learner."
But caregiving and nurse assisting were not part of Sakkaphun's original path. In Bangkok, she taught at a local college and earned degrees in marketing and economics. She didn't become a caregiver until she moved to the U.S. with her son in 1981.
Her passion flourished while working with her first patient in Ohio, Sakkaphun said, and she continued working as a caregiver through several moves before settling in Utah in 2002.
"When (patients) are sick, sometimes nobody wants to help (them)," Sakkaphun said in an interview. "So when I take care of them – give them baths, feed them and help them – they are happy. And that makes me feel happy too."
Sakkaphun spent the last several years caring for a woman in Schenectady, N.Y., and moved back to Utah after the woman died. As she planned her next step, Sakkaphun said she decided she wanted the "piece of paper to back up (her) years of experience" as a caregiver, solidifying her decision to go back to school.
She began the nursing assistant program in October and completed it in February.
"For me as an instructor, I am here to help students succeed in their dreams not to diminish them," said Williams, who is the coordinator for the nurse assistant program. "It was exciting for me to have her here."
With English being her second language, Sakkaphun said memorizing the vocabulary needed for her coursework was a difficult challenge. Computers were a close second, she said, explaining that her son had to help her navigate online assignments.
At the end of May, Sakkaphun will return to Schenectady to work as a nurse assistant for her former patient's husband. She said she feels more ready than she ever to resume the work she loves, thanks to the SLCC program.
"I'm kind of like that saying 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks," Sakkaphun said. "But I'm the old dog and I did learn the new tricks."