Judging from the party scene inside the USF Sun Dome, you’d be surprised to hear how far Tamika Holland traveled to get here.

Dressed all in blue, from her cap to her gown, the 42-year-old wore a smile as wide as the aisle she marched. On each side, congratulatory shouts of praise rained down from every direction and high-fives followed.

Then, she made it to the stage and delivered a message from the heart.

“I did it,” she said with a smile. The crowd cheered. Holland fought back tears as she kissed a framed photo of her recently-deceased mother.

This was a graduation that had been a long time coming.

“It was amazing. I was overwhelmed with joy, tears and how many people acknowledged me that I didn’t even know that I inspired,” said Holland.

Before she turned 22 years old, Holland was a mother of five. Her first child was born when she was just 15. Life’s difficulties didn’t end there. She found herself in an abusive relationship that she was forced to leave. Then, she lost everything she had.

“I was homeless from approximately the end of 2014 to the end of 2016,” she said. “Very stressful.”

She worked at whatever job she could find. She worked fast food. She worked housekeeping jobs and relied on friends for a bed. On good nights, when she found the money or somebody helped her out, she slept in a motel room.

“I really had faith.”

Holland was urged to go back to school. She started at Ultimate Medical Academy in June of 2015 hoping to get the required certification to start working in the dental field. Then, her mom died in September.

She took a few months off because “she needed motivation”.

“She’s overcome a lot and she’s succeeding at what she does now,” said Dr. Ben Gubernick, a dentist at the Mid-CountyDental Associates office, where Holland began working in November 2016. “She tried to keep it as low key as possible. I would have had no idea she went through this.”

Graduating and realizing her dreams of solid employment and a stable life puts a perpetual smile on Holland’s face, these days. Ironically, smiles are her business now.

“I didn’t think I was able back then compared to being able now. I didn’t see it,” she said.

Now, she’s inspired others with her story and gives them a reason to smile back.