It’s common to hear some in the media dismiss millennials — young adults born in the 1980s and 1990s — as lazy, self-centered brats. They clearly never met recent Rogers State University graduate Tara Denton.
As a full-time student at RSU and a full-time convenience-store clerk, Denton’s days usually started as the sun came up, frequently before.
Denton graduated, debt free, in May from RSU with a degree in medical molecular biology, contributing to ground-breaking cancer research along the way. The one year she didn’t carry a 4.0 grade point average, she made the dean’s honor roll, meaning she had a 3.5 or better.
“I wasn’t as serious as I should have been my freshman year,” Denton joked.
RSU President Dr. Larry Rice said Denton’s hard work was inspiring. “Throughout her time at RSU, Tara showed the kind of work ethic and enthusiasm that we look for in a student,” he said.
A graduate of Owasso High School, Denton said that she had offers from other schools but opted for Rogers State because of its leafy Claremore Campus and its proximity to her family.
Money was a concern, so she researched scholarships with the help of RSU’s financial aid office. “They were really helpful,” Denton said. “I felt like my grades and test scores were good enough to get some scholarships, it was just a matter of finding out what was available.”
Denton was able to cobble together scholarships and endowments that covered most of her tuition and fees, but she still needed some money to live on so she got a job at QuikTrip as a clerk. The schedule was frenetic.
A typical day saw her on campus by 8 a.m. — she packed her classes in the morning whenever possible — and off to work by 4 p.m. where she worked until midnight. Weekends she worked from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m.
QuikTrip encourages employees who pursue higher education and is accustomed to working with students to accommodate their schedules, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
If it wore on her, you couldn’t tell, said DeKenon Page, manager of the QuikTrip where she worked. “She was just a self-starter, self-motivated,” he said.
One of Denton’s jobs on Saturday’s was to take delivery of the “white truck,” a shipment of candy and other treats that has to be stocked and shelved meticulously.
“It’s really a tedious job because of how many different items there are,” Page said. “There are hundreds of them, and each one has to be shelved and organized. It’s a pain, but I always knew that Tara would get it done and get it done right.”
Dr. Jae-Ho Kim, Denton’s research mentor in the Biology Department, said she brought the same energy and determination to her academic work.
Kim runs a program at RSU that gives science undergraduates a change to do the kind of research that is usually reserved for graduate students at major research institution.
Denton, aware of the program, sought out Kim to be a part of it, settling on an experiment to find out how much Vitamin C it takes to kill a certain type of cancer cell in mice.
The study required Denton to wake up each day for 10 straight days and painstakingly count cancer cells in petri dish after petri dish to document the results. The work paid off though, and Denton’s research will be published in an academic journal in coming months, Kim said. It’s rare for undergraduates to get significant research experience, let alone have results published under their name, he said.
Denton is currently working as a dental assistant as she waits to be admitted into dental school, where she hopes to specialize in pediatrics or orthodontics. “Since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be a doctor or a dentist, and I knew I’d have to work hard to get there.”