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Single Mom Battled Cancer and a Hurricane to Earn Her College Degree

By Katie Honan | June 9, 2014 7:40am
 Ellen Sautner, 54, graduates Monday with her bachelor's degree after nearly a decade.
Single Mom Battled Cancer and a Hurricane to Earn Her College Degree
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ROCKAWAY BEACH — She's had the title of single mom, cancer fighter and hurricane survivor. And now, after nearly a decade, Ellen Sautner can call herself something else — a college graduate.

Sautner, 54, will graduate Monday from Touro College's School of Career and Applied Studies in Brooklyn, receiving a bachelor's degree with a concentration in education and psychology.

She earned her teaching certification and is now looking to teach or do counseling full time starting in the fall.

It's been a long road for the Department of Education employee, who's worked with emotionally disturbed children in New York City public schools since 1989. 

She tried college right after high school but dropped out of Kingsborough Community College, which she said "wasn't for me at that time in my life."

Sautner, who's lived in Rockaway her whole life, worked multiple jobs to support herself and her four children.

She started working in public schools in 1989, and has spent 21 years at P.S. 183 in Arverne.

The thought of returning to college came to her in 2001, after she and her husband separated.

"It gave me the extra push," she said, though she waited to start school for another four years, when her youngest son, Cristian, started kindergarten.

"I needed to show my kids that I wasn't going to let a situation like this tear me down," she said.

Sautner juggled her job and school, which she attended part-time, and spent her nights studying, taking summer and weekend classes to keep up.

"It was rough," she said. "It took me away from things I would have been going to, like sporting events or driving to places or being that mom who was available to do things."

But she kept at it, and said her four children — now 15 to 32 years old — all learned from her discipline.

"I was teaching my children that this is the hand that life dealt us, and we have to work together," she said.

She was diagnosed with melanoma in 2009, but that didn't stop her from continuing her education. She didn't skip a particularly hard class in Manhattan even after a treatment.

"I was there on painkillers, on a blood drain, but I was there taking those damn math notes," she said.

Sautner's father also battled cancer, her mother recently passed away, and in 2012 she was forced out of her home for four months after it flooded from Hurricane Sandy.

What seemed at first like a simple job to replace the floors turned into a total renovation when the walls began to collapse. Sautner suddenly faced additional home repair bills. 

She thought about taking a break from school but realized it would just delay accomplishing her dreams.

"It was probably the most difficult semester of my life," she said. "I had to keep telling myself, 'Just do this. Don't give up now.'"

It's paid off. At the June 9 graduation, Sautner will be awarded the Tuvia and Lilka Bielski Award for Personal Achievement, which is given to students who have "confronted difficult odds" to graduate, according to Touro College.

They cited her grit and hard work  she'll will graduate with a 3.87 GPA  as well as her example to her children and others.

Sautner is taking her whole family to the ceremony. She hopes to get a full-time teaching job after the summer, possibly working in new pre-kindergarten classes next year, she said. 

She gets emotional at the thought of walking across the stage in her cap and gown.

"I imagine it in my head and I get choked up," she said. "I feel like it's a very enormous accomplishment."