By SUNNY LOCKWOOD
Dia Hartsell was the first member of her family to graduate from college.
But she didn't head for college right out of high school or even during her 20s. First, she raised her own family, volunteered in her children's classrooms and taught a summer cooking class for children. She had a day care business in her home and even helped start a co-op preschool in Arnold.
Then, in her early 30s, she went through a divorce and began to take classes at Columbia College.
"I loved volunteering in my kids' classes," she said. "And I loved when I worked as a substitute aide in the classroom and on the playground. Becoming a teacher seemed like the next step."
It was not an easy step, though. Hartsell ran her child-care business during the day, worked five nights a week and attended class one night a week.
Once her Columbia studies were completed, she gathered grants and scholarships and headed to Stockton's University of the Pacific and became a full-time student.
"That was the biggest goal I'd ever set for myself," Hartsell said. "It was hard. The hardest thing was sacrificing that time with my kids."
She waitressed on the weekends and carried a full load of classes each semester.
Her oldest son, Brandon, was studying at Humboldt State University while she was at UOP. Mother and son received their diplomas in 2000.
Hartsell's two younger children are still at home: 16-year-old Tyler and 14-year-old Amber.
Since graduating, Hartsell has taught at Copperopolis Elementary School fourth grade, a third- and fourth-grade combination and, this year, a fourth- and fifth-grade combination class.
"What I love about fourth grade is the age of the kids," she said. "They're ready for a higher level of thinking and study than third grade. They're writing reports and reading textbooks. And I love the curriculum. Fourth grade is when they study California history."