A family emergency forced Amanda Beth Cagle to leave Walters State in 2007, just a semester short of earning an associate of applied science degree in respiratory care.

Cagle came back in 2017 and will graduate Saturday as the top respiratory care student, becoming a living example of why one should never give up on dreams.

“I did not know if I would have the chance to come back. I didn’t just want to graduate from college. I loved respiratory care and wanted to work in the field,” Cagle said. She said she had no choice but to withdraw earlier due to a family emergency.

When she met with an adviser after deciding to return to college, she learned many of her general education classes were still valid. Being a health programs student, she did have to repeat a few science classes. She also learned that the respiratory care program had expanded from three semesters to four. Graduates may now sit for the higher-level registered respiratory care therapist licensure exam.

“I was 26 when I enrolled the first time. When I returned, some of my classmates were old enough to be my children. Honestly, it was a little intimidating,” Cagle said.

“The professors were always a big help. They are very open and accessible,” Cagle said. Soon, younger and older students were looking to Cagle for assistance.

“Beth is able to get along with anyone, including students of all ages. Students looked up to her,” said Donna Lilly, director of the respiratory care program.

“I always remembered Beth because she was a great student and was so close to graduation when she had to leave. When she came back 10 years later, I was a little surprised, but I was also ecstatic. I knew she would do well.”

Cagle paid for her education with a Pell Grant. If she had not qualified for a Pell Grant, she could have received a Tennessee Reconnect grant for the last year.

“Tennessee Reconnect gives adult learners so many new options and I think everyone should take advantage of the it,” Cagle said.

Cagle encourages someone who may be a little unsure about college to just visit a Walters State campus.

The degree she’ll receive on Saturday has given Cagle a new confidence and an even stronger determination. She will also triple her paycheck when her new job is compared to the job she has worked while finishing her degree.

Cagle will be working in a hospital after graduation.

Eventually, she would like to be a traveling therapist and earn her bachelor of science degree. One day, she might try teaching.

Walters State’s 56th commencement will be at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 4, at the Walters State Great Smoky Mountains Expo Center in White Pine.

The college will confer 787 degrees and certificates.