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Published: Sunday, 5/29/2005

It's all a matter of degrees for Sylvania family

BY KIM BATES
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Above, from left, father Michael, daughters Tara and Kelly, and mother Cathy Ruhlen endured tuition and time pressures. Son Christopher, at left, earned his law degree this year. Above, from left, father Michael, daughters Tara and Kelly, and mother Cathy Ruhlen endured tuition and time pressures. Son Christopher, at left, earned his law degree this year.
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Paying for rising tuition costs and spending endless hours studying are the norms for any college student.

But the Ruhlen family of Sylvania Township has endured those pains fivefold.

All five family members - two parents and their three children - have graduated or will graduate from college this year. Their three bachelor's degrees from Bowling Green State University, a law degree from the University of Virginia, and a master's degree from Harvard University are the culmination of 17 years of combined school work, tens of thousands of dollars in annual tuition payments, and little time to see one another.

While they're all celebrating now, the process often seemed unbearable.

"We all at times had doubts on whether we could keep it up," said Cathy Ruhlen, 50, who received her bachelor's of science in gerontology last month from BGSU. "But we all kept each other going."

Added her husband, Dr. Michael Ruhlen: "At times I wanted to drop out. But I was afraid I'd be a bad role model."

Mrs. Ruhlen spent the last four years working two jobs and taking part-time classes at BGSU. She graduated May 7 with a 4.0 grade point average and the honor of being the outstanding senior of the year in gerontology.

After years of raising a family, working, and putting off going back to school, Mrs. Ruhlen decided to enroll at BGSU, and both her daughters ended up there too. Mrs. Ruhlen had the opportunity to graduate in the same ceremony with her 24-year-old daughter, Tara, who received her bachelor's degree in applied health science.

The mother and daughter sat next to each during the graduation. Last semester, they also sat side by side in a course on death and dying.

"It's really an opportunity that we'll never have again," said Tara Ruhlen, who lives in Bowling Green.

Her sister, Kelly, 22, also was a student at BGSU during the same period. Kelly will graduate in December after completing time as a student-teacher at Sylvania's Stranahan Elementary School this fall. Her degree will be a bachelor of science in early childhood education, with a minor in special education.

Their brother, Christopher, 29, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., graduated last weekend from the University of Virgina's law school. While a student there for three years, he was married and was a member of the law review.

The family - all but Christopher - gathered at their kitchen table last week to talk about their latest and future educational endeavors. Foremost, they're planning to spend a few days relaxing together during a trip to the East Coast to see Dr. Ruhlen receive his master of science degree in health-care management from Harvard on June 9.

"We've been on such a pace, we have to make an effort to slow down," Mrs. Ruhlen said.

For Dr. Ruhlen, 50, a pediatric physician who's now the vice president for medical affairs at Toledo Children's Hospital, obtaining his degree meant he had to spend 80 days over a two-year period at Harvard - away from his job and family.

The first year, he spent his nights sleeping in a student residence hall. The degree was designed like an executive master's of business administration program and was established for physicians similar to himself, he said.

In addition to the travel and the strain on the family, the Ruhlens endured tuition bills. Dr. and Mrs. Ruhlen have a practice of helping their children obtain their undergraduate degrees but don't pay for tuition beyond that point.

Dr. Ruhlen, who also started his own software company in 2001, said he did not tally the final tuition bill but instead tried his best to absorb the costs into their regular monthly budgets. He said they used home-equity loans in the process and everyone held down jobs while in school.

With all the hard work - and the costs to consider - are more degrees out of the question for this family?

Hardly.

Tara Ruhlen is headed in August to graduate school at Louisiana State University, while Kelly Ruhlen and Mrs. Ruhlen also are considering graduate school.

"We've already paid tuition to 14 schools, and that doesn't count any master's degrees in the future," Dr. Ruhlen said. "And we figure we have a few more graduations to go to."

Contact Kim Bates at: kimbates@theblade.com or 419-724-6074.



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