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Hollins University senior April Arnold is graduating Sunday with a degree in psychology and plans to counsel children.

April Arnold couldn’t have predicted just two years ago that she’d arrive at this moment.

The Hollins University senior’s road to graduation didn’t always follow a neat and easy line. But, looking back, she can see how every twist and every turn connected — helping her find her calling, tap into a new confidence and, ultimately, arrive at the place she was meant to be.

“Now, seeing how it all came together, I see there was a plan, even if I didn’t always know it,” she said.

“So I think I was always meant to be on this path,” she added later. “[I]t just took me a little longer to get there.”

On Sunday, Arnold, 27, will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in psychology, poised to start a career as a counselor working with children.

She came to Hollins after an unexpected invitation from a recruiter at a college fair in 2017 that she attended, not for herself, but for her younger sister.

At that time, Arnold didn’t have her sights set on a four-year degree, although it always had been her hope to get her bachelor’s.

After high school, the Roanoke native enrolled at Virginia Western Community College, with plans to earn her general education credits and then transfer.

That was the original game plan, Arnold said. But then life took over.

A workplace accident ended up seriously injuring Arnold’s mother, a single parent, which spurred Arnold to step up and take on more at home.

The household included Arnold’s little sister and three young cousins whom the family adopted after their mother became ill and died. This was certainly not the first time the close-knit clan had rallied together to take care of one another, and it would not be the last.

To this day, Arnold said, the family balances everything by working together.

“It’s honestly teamwork,” she said. “We all do homework together. We share responsibilities around the house. We make it work.”

Arnold continued to take classes, but her pace slowed as things shifted at home. She ended up spending six years at Virginia Western, earning an associate degree in early childhood education, but she no longer saw herself making the jump to a four-year institution.

Then, while helping her sister look into schools, a Hollins rep encouraged Arnold to consider the university’s Horizon Program.

That initiative is tailored to older students. Established in 1974, it was created to support women who wanted to go back to school but were also juggling family and work.

Mary Ellen Apgar, head of the program and an alum herself, persuaded Arnold to visit the campus and learn more about it.

Arnold stood out right away, she said.

“I really think April is the epitome of kindness,” Apgar said.

Arnold brings a joyful spirit to everything she does and inspires others, Hollins leaders said.

“I think the way she cares for her family at home extends to the way she cares for others,” Agpar said. “There are other students here who really look up to April and admire her.”

Arnold worried about the cost of enrolling at the private college, but her mother, who didn’t want to see her give up on her dream, said they would figure it out.

The school helped pull together a financial aid package that helped make it possible.

Pursuing her degree required long hours on Arnold’s part. She was often up until midnight or later studying.

But those late nights paid off. She excelled academically, earning induction into the Pinnacle Honor Society and, just recently, winning the Evelyn Bradshaw Award for Excellence, a prize bestowed by faculty and students on an outstanding senior in the Horizon Program.

Arnold also took on active roles on campus through groups like the Black Student Alliance. And she rediscovered a love of singing, something she hadn’t done since high school choir, and found herself tackling solo pieces at recitals.

“That was a confidence builder for me,” she said. “When I’m up there performing, I’m just in a whole other space and I’m able to just be in that moment and let everything else go.”

Her studies at Hollins also allowed her to dive deeper into child psychology — an interest that started with her work at Virginia Western and has become a calling that she hopes to use to help others.

As graduation day approaches, Arnold said, she’s filled with both excitement for the future and sadness at saying goodbye to the campus.

“Leaving will be one of the hardest things,” she said. “I’ve made so many friendships here and met so many amazing people. I was able to live a full college experience that, at 26 and 27, I didn’t think I would be able to anymore.”

When she walks across the stage Sunday to claim her diploma, Arnold said, that moment won’t be hers alone. She’s been thinking recently about the string of family members, educators and friends who supported her in her pursuits — that community that makes a lasting impression on a life.

In her new career as a counselor, she said, she hopes to become part of that network, buoying up other children and families in the region.

“I want to give back to that,” she said. “I hope, wherever I go in life, I’ll be helping people.”

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Alicia Petska covers what's happening in Roanoke County and the City of Salem.

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