As the Montoursville Area High School class of 2003 accepts their diplomas earlier this month, 18-year-old Alicia Null looked like a typical graduate.
She wore the same blue cap and gown, received the same piece of matted parchment paper and offered the same ear-to-ear smile as the rest of her graduating peers.
However, there is nothing typical about what she overcame to get where she is today.
Over the last three years, Null has dealt with more tragedy and adversity than most people deal with in a lifetime.
In September of 2000, her father, John Null, died after suffering a heart-attack while on a hunting trip in Canada. Just over a year later her fiance, Matthew Mertes, was killed in a tragic car accident little more than a month after the young couple's daughter had been born.
In little more than a year, Null had gone from being an average teenager to a single mother trying to raise a child while dealing with two life changing tragedies, all while finishing high school and working a part-time job.
Combining these events might seem difficult for anyone to cope with, let alone a teenager. But, as one can quickly tell, Null is far from average.
"No matter how tough things get you have to suck it up, bite the bullet and move on," Null said. "You can't let things get in your way. You need to prioritize your life, and right now my daughter is my priority."
Null's 18-month-old daughter, Julia Rose Mertes, is much more than just her priority - she is her motivation for a successful future. She is preparing to pave her way to this successful future by pursuing a bachelor's degree in business at Pennsylvania College of Technology in the fall.
"I need to prepare for what happens down the road, not just for me but for my daughter," Null said. "I can't always count on everyone else."
Even with the responsibilities of motherhood, Null managed to maintain a superb academic standing throughout high school.
She graduated in the top portion of her class with a cumulative academic average of 90 percent.
Prior to graduation, Null received a number of scholarships and awards. Among them were the American Legion Squadron 104 Sons of the American Legion Award for outstanding scholastic achievement and community involvement and the Carl W. Stenberg Jr. Scholarship, given in recognition of all she has overcome in recent years. She also received the President's Education Award for outstanding academic achievement.
Now that high school is finished, she will work full-time this summer to help pay for college.
Despite all she has overcome, Null admits the support of her family and friends has been the backbone of her ability to move forward.
Both her and her fiance's families have been "incredibly supportive" throughout everything, she said.
"I don't know where I'd be without them," she added.
As her daughter continues to grow, Null has made it a priority for Julia to know everything she can about her father and grandfather.
Because Julia was born after her grandfather died and had little time to spend with her father prior to his accident, Null has collected scrapbooks of pictures so her daughter can learn more about the two men that made such an impact in their lives.
"I collect everything and put it in her memory box so she knows who she is and where she came from," Null said.
Even now, Julia easily identifies her father and grandfather in pictures with responses of "Daddy" and "Pop-Pop."
Despite all she has been through, Null refuses to let people take pity on her - a task that may not be as easily done considering the events of the past three years.
"When you have a baby, people look at you different; when you lose your father, people feel sorry for you; and when you lose the love of your life, people really don't know how to react," she said. "I don't like people feeling sorry for me, and I don't like being treated differently."
Null will be the first to agree that what she has gone through was not easy, but also said it has helped her become who she is today.
"I'm more independent and more confident with myself than I was before," she said. "Right now, all I need is my daughter and my family and I am happy."
Although she admits not a day goes by where she does not think about her father or her fiance, she said it is her responsibility to be strong and move on.
It's a responsibility that is supported in full by both the Null and Mertes families as they watch proudly.
Appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette