TRAVERSE CITY — Kathy Tahtinen didn't want to embarrass her son Dominic Farmer on their first day as classmates in the same earth science course at Northwestern Michigan College.
The situation had the makings of a teenager's worst nightmare. So Tahtinen sent a text message to Farmer, 17, before she arrived on campus and asked him how he wanted to handle the potentially cringe-worthy scene.
"He texted me and said 'I'm already here. I have a seat saved next to me for you," Tahtinen said. "Then he introduced me as his mom. Hopefully I'm doing something right if he's not embarrassed to be my son."
Indeed, the numerous accolades Tahtinen, of Traverse City, earned since she enrolled in NMC after 17 years away from the classroom suggest she's doing more than just something right.
She's the recipient of so many scholarships that she'll graduate this spring debt-free; she's a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honors society; NMC named her the college's adult student of the year in 2014; and most recently she became Michigan's New Century Scholar, one of 50 community college students from across the nation to receive the award.
The newest award comes after Tahtinen scored highest in the state on the All-USA Community College Academic Team application, a tool that measures grades, extracurricular activities, and how students extend their success beyond the classroom, NMC officials said in a written statement.
Succeeding beyond the classroom for Tahtinen involved becoming a master juggler of sorts: She returned to school in 2011 while working full time, maintaining two additional seasonal jobs and raising a pair of teenage sons as a single mother.
"People always ask, 'How do you do that?'" she said. "'How many hours do you have in your day?' I just take it one day at a time."
Roughly 1,700 hundred students were nominated the New Century Scholar Program from more than 1,000 community college across the country. Winners receive a $2,000 scholarship and recognition at the Phi Kappa Theta convention in Lansing in March, and the American Association of College Presidents convention in San Antonio in April.
But a far more important date looms on Tahtinen's horizon: NMC's May 2 graduation ceremony, when she'll formally earn three associate degrees in general studies, business management and business administration.
Tahtinen already works as an office manager at Suttons Bay's Inland Lakes Education Association, but she hopes to continue her education by earning a bachelor's degree, and later an MBA.
Farmer, in the meantime, plans to follow in his mother's footsteps. The Central High School senior who's dual-enrolled in NMC this semester plans to join the college as a full-time student in the fall with an eye on working toward a profession related to agriculture or biology.
Tahtinen said she hopes she's set a high standard for her sons to do well in college, but she also wonders if they'll fully appreciate how hard she's worked until they're adults themselves.
Farmer said he's already learning a lot from his mother, and her teachings go beyond their work together as lab partners in earth science class.
"I try to be more like what she does," he said. "If you stay active and do more work, you can always push yourself to the limits."