05/05/2011 01:13 am ET Updated Jul 04, 2011

College Graduation: A Very Special Mother's Day Gift

Sunday, May 8 is Mother's Day this year. It is also graduation day at Northern Kentucky University.

I'll be at Northern, watching my nephew, Nick McNay, go through the graduation procession.

His grandmother, Ollie, and mother, Theresa, will be watching from a perch up in the heavens.

Graduating from college was something that Nick did to honor them. Going on to live an educated and productive life is something he will do for himself and his children.

His journey is one of inspiration and perseverance.

Few things in Nick's early environment predicted that someday he would be on the Dean's List and walking down a college graduation line.

He was the son of a single mother and has met his father once. College is not a family tradition. He and I, exactly 30 years apart, are the only McNays ever to graduate from college.

His high school did not produce many college graduates. Nick spent most of high school playing basketball and soccer and chasing girls.

Although he excelled at all three, they were not predictors of future academic success.

He had some things going for him. With a charming personality, strong work ethic and very street smart, he has always been a natural leader.

After high school, he bounced through a series of manual labor jobs and didn't have a plan or direction.

That all changed on April 2, 2006. The day his grandmother, Ollie, died.

Ollie came back from a party, complained of a headache and suddenly died right in front of Nick and his mother. She had an aneurysm.

Nick wrote in a college paper, "My grandma was more to me than just a grandma. She was my father, best friend, biggest supporter, lifeline; words can't express what she was to me. All she ever asked me to do was to go to college."

He decided that day to get his college degree. He came to Richmond, Kentucky to attend my alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University.

He went at his classes with intensity and enthusiasm. He didn't have a major but he was motivated to fulfill the college dreams his grandmother had for him.

Then the second blow struck. Six months after his grandmother died, his mother, who had just found a great job at Proctor and Gamble, fell down a flight of steps and died at age 46. Both of his parental figures were gone.

It would have been easy to give up and quit.

Instead, he "doubled down," to use a gambling expression.

Nick became even more focused on school to help block out his grief. He also went to weekly counseling sessions, found an army of tutors, and used every support resource that EKU had to offer.

The person who really helped to pull him through was his math teacher. The teacher spent many after class hours helping him understand math and also counseling him with his problems.

I found out two years later that the math teacher was Robert Blythe, who is also a minister and Richmond City Commissioner.

Nick made it through the year and studied in Brazil that summer.

That fall, he fathered a child in Cincinnati -- another reason to drop out of school. Instead, Nick doubled down again.

He transferred to Northern Kentucky University to be near the first of his two daughters, working at cutting down trees and delivering pizzas while he attended class.

At Northern, he found his calling. The school has an excellent program in Electronic Media Broadcasting in the College of Informatics. Once Nick took an introductory class, he was hooked. The formerly indifferent student started showing up on the Dean's list with a passion and enthusiasm for cinematography.

Nick did an internship for Above the Line Media in Cincinnati and worked directly with its president, award winning filmmaker Mark Turner. (In an ironic twist, Turner was the editor of my college newspaper.) Turner had just finished work on 4192, a documentary about Pete Rose.

Turner said, "Nick has a very good eye for framing a shot. I trusted him with shots that are going to show up at film festivals and on DVD. As good as his instincts are now; they are only going to get better. He has a bright future in this business."

In days when college tuition is spiraling and people like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are making billions without a diploma, some argue that a college degree may not be worth the expense.

When I ponder the cost versus the benefit, I look at the situations of people like Nick. College gave Nick a framework to utilize his intellect and to discover gifts that he never knew he had. Instead of a lifetime of going from one manual labor job to another, he has a start at a high-powered career that he absolutely loves.

Pressure is what turns a piece of coal into a diamond. The pressures Nick had to overcome allowed his talents, work ethic, and character to flourish.

His grandmother and mother knew that Nick was a "diamond in the rough' and that college would smooth out the rough edges.

On this Mother's Day, they get to see their dreams and wishes come true.

From a perch above the clouds.

Street Smart

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is an award winning, syndicated, financial columnist and Huffington Post Contributor.

You can read more about Don at McNay founded McNay Settlement Group, a structured settlement and financial consulting firm, in 1983 and Kentucky Guardianship Administrators LLC in 2000. You can read more about both at

McNay has Master's Degrees from Vanderbilt and the American College and is in the Eastern Kentucky University Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

McNay has written two books. Most recent is Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers and What to Do When You Win The Lottery

McNay is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Round Table and has four professional designations in the financial services field.