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Non-traditional Graduate Plans to Pay it Forward

Mother of two celebrates commencement by donating to Toys for Tots.

Jessica Bies, Mankato Free Press, 12-13-2014

Melissa Rath isn’t your typical Minnesota State University, Mankato student.

Which might explain her unique approach to this weekend’s graduation. The 37-year-old-mother of two has asked friends and families to buy her toys this weekend, instead of more traditional, celebratory gifts.

“My family and friends have given me so much love and support that I thought in turn I would pay it forward and help children in our communities who deserve to open a present during the Christmas season,” she said. “I plan to collect the toys and then distribute them to area Toys for Tots. Hopefully these gifts will provide happiness to them.”

By forgoing any presents, she’s also hoping to set a good example for her kids, 8-year-old Justin and 4-year-old Ellie.

“Our family usually ‘adopts’ a family during Christmas to provide presents/cash to the family who needs a little help and are less fortunate than us,” she said. “I feel that our family has been blessed with many things (such as being able to go back to school) and there are others out there who are not as fortunate, so we try to give to them.”

This Saturday’s noon commencement ceremony is as much a celebration for them, as it is for her, she said. For the past five years, they’ve watched their mother juggle work and school, sacrificing many the warm, summer days at home so she could earn her first bachelor’s degree.

“Brian, my husband, has been very supportive throughout,” she said. He encouraged her to take the opportunity and go back to school in 2009, when their son Jason was only 3-years-old. Shortly after making the decision, their daughter Ellie was born.

Rath started working at Minnesota State Mankato as scholarship and athletic grants coordinator one year before that, in 2008. She already had an associate’s degree from Rasmussen College, but wanted to get four-year degrees in urban and regional studies and business law, as well.

Actually getting the degree took a lot of hard work. But the process has been a fulfilling one, she said.

One recent class project even went as far to directly benefit her home community of Easton.

“We raised almost $40,000 to buy playground equipment for our local parks,” she said. Before that, the community gathering place had only a couple metal slides and a few swings. When asked to come up with a real-world project to tackle during her grants administration class, she wrote to large local businesses and nonprofits like DuPont Pioneer, Walmart, Mayo Clinic and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and convinced them to invest in new playground equipment.

“We’ve done a lot,” Rath said, referring not only to her fellow students but her family, who helped get the project done.

That’s why she’s walking down the aisle at this weekend’s commencement ceremony.

“I think a lot of people, older students, don’t walk because the other students are younger,” she said. “But I feel like, heck! I deserve it!”

Her kids agree. They’ll be at the ceremony cheering Rath on and earlier this week helped bedazzle her graduation cap, using rhinestones to spell out the word “MOM.”

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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