Megan Dobson walked up the stairs, took a few steps on stage and, looking up, put her hands over her mouth in awe.
Then the tears started flowing.
Dobson’s grandmother, JoAnn Coover, and administrators at South Hills School of Business & Technology helped plan a surprise to bring the ill grandmother in from Burnham in Mifflin County for the graduation Thursday night at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel.
The plan worked. Coover stood on stage with a rose in hand as Dobson received her diploma in criminal justice.
Dobson was one of 91 graduates from the Altoona, Lewistown and State College campuses who walked the stage.
“It’s a combination of so many emotions,” said Allyson Barnett, 20. “I’m a little scared, a little excited, but ready for the next chapter.”
Barnett, a diagnostics medical sonography major from Three Springs, accepted a job at Fulton County Medical Center and will start after the Fourth of July weekend.
She said the school helped set her up for success, especially after completing a six-month internship at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.
“That’s part of our mission — to get the students ready for the real world,” said Ellen Spinelli, career service coordinator.
“The internship is a jump-start for their future.”
School founder and President Maralyn Mazza said that about 87 percent of students have immediate job placement after graduation.
The graduation kicked off with remarks from South Hills Director Mark Maggs, who urged the graduates to not box themselves in when it comes to career and other life choices.
He was followed by three other graduates, Mazza and keynote speaker Jayne E. Nelson.
Nelson, director of health information management at Mount Nittany Medical Center, is a two-time graduate of South Hills.
“They made it, and going to South Hills was probably one of the best choices they could have made,” she said. “In my position as a director, most people have a four-year degree or more, and it throws people off guard or they’re surprised when I tell them I graduated from South Hills.”
Nelson returned to school after 19 years in the workforce. She said it was time for a new career path.
She graduated first in 1995 with a degree in health information technology, and in 2002 in diagnostic medical professions.
“It was one of the best things I’ve done, and I truly believe I got a high-quality education,” Nelson said.
Mazza, 86, added that the education also comes with a lot of love.
“We’re like family,” said the woman students often call “mom.”
South Hills is an accredited career school offering associate degrees and diplomas in business, technology, health care, law, justice and graphic arts.
Maralyn and her husband, Paul Mazza, founded the school in 1970. Paul Mazza died in 2013.
Last year’s graduates honored him by trading in their graduation caps for skimmer hats. After every graduation for at least 20 years, Paul Mazza would grab a cane, put on a skimmer hat and do a song and dance to the 1927 classic “Side by Side.”