Some students take a straight path through higher education to careers; Kathryn Vanzant says hers zigzagged.

Vanzant, 28, graduated from Trident Technical College on Friday with an associate degree in dental hygiene.

She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 2002. Then she worked as a therapeutic assistant with patients experiencing mental health crises at the Medical University of South Carolina's Institute of Psychiatry.

She wanted to enroll in Trident's dental hygiene program after working at MUSC for about three years, but she learned there was a yearlong waiting list. So she decided to do modeling work for a year.

But modeling went so well for her -- taking her to jobs in the United States, Taiwan and Italy -- that another three years passed before she was back in the Charleston area ready to begin the dental hygiene program.

She wants to eventually use her psychology background and newly acquired dental skills to help dental patients with special needs, such as those who are cancer patients, hospitalized for long periods of time or on respirators.

She felt comfortable at Trident, she said, because all different types of people attend classes there.

This year, 1,584 of those students were eligible to receive 1,949 associate degrees, diplomas and certificates. More than

600 of them participated in the college's commencement ceremony at the North Charleston Coliseum on Friday evening.

Wilbur E. Johnson, managing partner at the law firm of Young Clement Rivers LLP, was the commencement speaker. Before the ceremony, Johnson, who formerly served on Trident's Area Commission, said he was honored to speak at the event because the school serves a "useful and important function and mission."

Students can use its myriad programs to land quick employment or begin a four-year degree, he said.

"Without Trident Tech, there wouldn't be a place for some students," he said.

Johnson said he hoped the students will use their education and training to benefit the community. Charitable work is important to living a good life, he said. "We don't live in this community as a vacuum."

Dornetta McConnell, who earned an associate degree in human services, is married and has five children. She already is preparing to help others despite the challenges she faces in her own life.

McConnell, who had a brain disorder and lost her vision 13 years ago, said she eventually wants to earn a master's degree, then launch a nonprofit organization to help people with disabilities get back into the work force.

"A lot of people think being blind means not being capable of anything," she said.

She wants to dispel that negative stereotype about blindness and other disabilities, she said.

In other graduations Friday:

Speaking to South Carolina State University graduates was Patricia Harris.

The chief diversity officer for McDonald's Corp., Harris addressed the nearly 500 graduates at the Orangeburg school.

She is responsible for developing and putting into effect diversity programs for the corporation that includes more than 31,000 restaurants in 118 countries.

Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, spoke to University of South Carolina graduates. The commencement ceremonies began with Law School graduates followed by the School of Medicine and undergraduate ceremonies.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will speak at this morning's graduation.

Robinson is a native of Orangeburg and won a Pulitzer Prize for his commentary on the 2008 presidential election. Bernanke grew up in Dillon and was named Fed chairman in 2006. He began his second term in February.

The Columbia campus of USC expected to award 2,761 bachelor's degrees and 1,026 master's degrees.

A record number of Clemson University graduates crossed the stage at Littlejohn Coliseum to receive their degrees.

Nearly 2,638 Clemson students were becoming alumni in front of packed audiences at morning and afternoon ceremonies. Of those graduates, 2,157 received bachelor's degrees, 425 earned master's degrees and 56 received Ph.D.s.

Speaking to graduates was U.S. Rep. Clyburn, a Sumter native and majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or dknich@postandcourier.com.