About 7,500 students will graduate from The University of Texas at Austin at the 128th spring commencement this Saturday, May 21. Each graduate has a unique story. To celebrate the Class of 2011, we're highlighting 10 stories, profiling students who have overcome obstacles, discovered new dimensions and doggedly pursued their academic goals.
You don't let 'em have anything, right here. You're sitting up tall, getting ready for you know what."
Put Colby Lowrey in the stern of a boat, in charge of eight athletes, and the unassuming McCombs School of Business student from tiny Bruceville, Texas, morphs into part drill sergeant, part emergency room doctor commanding her patient to live.
"Quick, lengthen, lengthen. One, hit, two.
Eliminate the hang on five.
Let's go, all summer, right here."
As a coxswain for Texas Rowing, Lowrey relied on intuition, strategic thinking and one surprisingly aggressive voice to motivate her rowers and push them through vomit-inducing physical exhaustion.
"Two, three, God bless America, c'mon four!
Swing and hit! Relax into the catch.
Coming into this last 100, what are you gonna do?!"
She loved the sport. It's how she got to know the university and learn about real leadership. But a family tragedy forced her to give it up well before graduation.
"Three, four, COME ON!!!"
A petite 5-foot-1-inch brunette, Lowrey possesses delicate features and an inviting confidence. She has a polite, matter-of-fact nature and a sense of optimism that belies a painful past.
Lowrey is the only child of a single mother and a father she never knew. Her mom, Janis Mezzell, worked 18-hour days as a seamstress. Struggling to live above the poverty line, Mezzell told a 5-year-old Lowrey she would have to pay for her own college education.
With that in mind, Lowrey applied herself to just about everything she could in high school: six varsity sports, cheerleading, band, student government. She graduated as valedictorian and entered the university with a full scholarship in 2007. Lowrey tried out for rowing and got a lifeguard job her first week on campus. Cell phone and health insurance bills had to be paid.
Lowrey found her stride at the business school, earning a spot in the school's exclusive Leadership Program and majoring in supply chain management.
Her mom altered uniforms for the rowing team and watched races on Ladybird Lake, yelling "Go babycakes!" as Lowrey guided her team across the water.
At Thanksgiving of Lowrey's sophomore year, Mezzell revealed she had end-stage cirrhosis of the liver. A year later, she died. Devastated and alone, Lowrey quit the team to work a second job.
"It broke my heart," Lowrey says. "I needed to make sure I wasn't just OK for right now," she told TexasSports.com last February. "I have to make sure I have a nest egg, in case something falls through, because I don't have a home to go to. I have to look out for myself right now."
Lowrey misses rowing and her mom, especially with graduation on the horizon, but credits Mezzell for her work ethic and independence.
"I think she raised me this way for a reason," she says.
Having spent her college career collecting extra lifeguard shifts, taking 18-hour course loads and grieving her mother as she cleaned out her childhood home, Lowrey says the next phase of her life which includes a full-time supply chain position with Target, no school and the freedom to do what she wants will practically be a vacation.
"Colby has this incredible life force, and somewhere along the way she decided that's the kind of person she is going to be," says assistant rowing coach Caroline King. "She creates the positivity that surrounds her."
Listen to Colby Lowrey call the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, where she led UT from a disastrous start to a nail-biting second-place finish. (The audio clip opens in a new window.)