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47-Year-Old Earns Top Honor at Graduation : Cal Lutheran: Karen Searle has highest grade-point average in her class. She shares the prestigious Dean’s Award with Lance Young.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Of all the awards she won from Cal Lutheran University last week, graduating senior Karen Searle was most effusive about the pen set.

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“I tried it out,” Searle told a friend Saturday morning as they gathered with other black-robed classmates for a photo before commencement began. “It really works.”

Of the 433 undergraduate students who received their degrees Saturday, Searle, who majored in computer-information systems, is one of the least traditional and most successful.

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The 47-year-old divorced mother of three worked full time, attended classes at night, studied weekends and still managed to emerge with the highest grade-point average in her class, a 3.93.

In addition to the pen set--which she got for graduating summa cum laude--and departmental honors, Searle won the Dean’s Award, Cal Lutheran’s highest academic award, along with senior Lance Young.

A total of 433 undergraduates and 199 graduate students received degrees at Cal Lutheran’s graduation Saturday morning, held under sunny skies in the school’s football stadium before thousands of parents and friends.

Southwestern novelist Rudolfo Anaya, author of “Bless Me, Ultima,” gave the commencement address and accepted an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

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The caps of many of the graduating students were adorned with masking tape messages to their parents and friends, and there were even some directed at the hands of fate. “HELP ME,” begged Chad Hellmuth’s cap.

Hellmuth, from Santa Monica, said he wasn’t as distraught as his cap indicated. A communications major, he has a job already, as a production assistant in Studio City. He said his plea for help was more directed at the notion of leaving the comfortable and friendly surroundings of the Thousand Oaks campus.

“It’s just that you’re leaving another family behind when you leave school,” he said.

Tressa Padellford of Denver, a biology major who hopes to get her master’s degree in genetic biology, said she was nervously awaiting word from graduate school.

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“It’s a little bit disconcerting to be at graduation not knowing if I got in,” she said. But a more immediate concern was whether her mother would ignore her requests and turn up at the end of the ceremony with a bouquet of balloons.

“They’re really bad for the environment,” she told her grandmother. “I hope she doesn’t do it.”

Wearing the Cal Lutheran purple-and-gold hood over her black gown, Searle accepted her diploma with a delighted smile. A gold cord around her neck signified that she was graduating with honors.

Divorced five years ago, Searle decided to go back to school to finish a degree she’d begun at Pierce College in the 1960s, continued at Moorpark College and put aside to return to work. She has been taking classes in Cal Lutheran’s evening program for the past two years.

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“I finally got to the point where the kids were grown up and I had time to do things for myself,” Searle said. She has two daughters, Kellie, 23, a student at UC Santa Barbara and Joanna, 21, a student at Santa Barbara City College. A son, Robert, 18, just started Moorpark College.

With an associate of arts degree from Moorpark, Searle worked her way into a senior compensation analyst position at Hughes Missile Systems Co. in Canoga Park. But she worried that doors outside Hughes would be shut to her without a bachelor’s degree.

Cal Lutheran was a logical choice, she said, because it was so close to her Simi Valley home. Hughes agreed to pay the entire cost of her education.

Joanne Lopez Hayden, the director of admissions and student services for Cal Lutheran’s adult education program, said it was unusual for an ADEP student to win the top academic award, but Searle had impressed her instantly with her energy.

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“She was very direct, she knew what she wanted and she was very outspoken,” Lopez Hayden said. “I knew right away she was going to be a real hard worker. But I just don’t know where she gets all that energy.”

When she was younger, Searle said, she concentrated that energy at home: She did everything from installing toilets to building an entire bedroom set for her son. The ambition to succeed in the workplace came later.

“When I was first married, I was just a really non-confident little shrinking violet,” Searle said. “But the best thing about being 47 is that I’m smart enough to know what makes me grow personally and to go ahead and do it. “

Since January, her schedule has required all her energy. Her division at Hughes moved to Tucson, Ariz. Because she wanted to stay near her children, she ended up flying to Tucson and back every Wednesday. Mondays and Tuesdays she worked at the company’s Canoga Park office and took classes at night.

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“By Thursday I was usually a blithering idiot,” she said. She usually put off homework until the weekend to give herself time to recover.

Now that she has a little more time to herself with the degree completed, Searle is looking ahead to improved prospects in the job market.

“I filled in some spaces,” she said. “There were some areas where I wanted to make sure I had all the tools. This is going to make me able to go faster in the direction I wanted to go in.”

But she might not be through with classes.

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“I’ve been thinking about installing tile in the entryway,” she said. “So I might take a tiling class.”


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