In a week, hundreds of Fairfield Ludlowe and Fairfield Warde seniors will be handed diplomas and stride into young adulthood, as their contemporaries from Fairfield Prep and Notre Dame have this month.

A large percentage will go on to fine colleges, universities and community colleges.

But others will proudly join the military, defer their college educations for a year to work locally or abroad, will go into very practical trade schools to learn electrical, plumbing, automotive and a host of other crafts.

I proudly applaud the non-college-bound students as vigorously as I do the college bound because our older daughter, Stacey, didn't go straight to college. Her story is one of courage and tenacity, and it is inspiring.

Six months before Stacey graduated from Fairfield High School in 1988, we visited a counselor to try and help her find some direction. Stacey was struggling with her future. Her SATs scores were nothing to write home about, she had crawled through math and science, and she was afraid she would disappoint us by not trying college. She was totally confused.

Our amazing counselor, Carol Loewith, was one of the most down-to-earth and realistic professionals we'd ever met. She gave Stacey a whole different option. Why not try Katherine Gibbs, the business school, for two years? she asked. It would offer a mix of academic subjects, plus the chance to learn business skills and poise that half her contemporaries would not.

If Stacy finished two years there, Carol told her, she could almost guarantee getting into college.

It was the first time we'd seen Stacey smile about her future. She eagerly took Carol's advice and was filled with pride when she was accepted to Katherine Gibbs. Stacy had a direction and the seeds of a future. She saw options that she never expected to have, and she never once felt she wasn't in an academic environment. Gibbs was the perfect foundation.

She had to dress up everyday, she learned poise and business skills that still work for her today.

On graduating from Katherine Gibbs, Stacey applied to Southern Connecticut State University, was accepted in 1990 and graduated as a recreational therapist. Her mom and I cried a lot at that graduation, knowing the path it took to get there.

But her journey don't end there. Just a few years and several good jobs as a recreational therapist, Stacey recognized that she wanted more of a challenge and secured a sales position -- ironically, with Katherine Gibbs. The job was to make cold calls to high schools and arrange information sessions to pitch Gibbs as an option for graduating seniors.

One of the rewards was speaking before groups, which Stacy enjoyed. While she was thriving in sales, she saw a future in something entirely different -- education.

One summer day, she stopped over to tell us she'd replied to an ad for a special education teacher in Bridgeport. She knew she had to start from scratch, but she was really anxious to teach. We could see the passion in her eyes.

She cut her teaching teeth in a tough Bridgeport middle school, then moved on to a private school in Milford, all the while struggling to get certification.

In December -- 10 years after she began her journey as a teacher -- Stacey will complete her six-year master's at Southern Connecticut State and also be certified as a reading specialist. My wife and I are proud of the skills and confidence Stacy has built. What a ride!

Witnessing Stacey's journey, my wife and I learned that this college thing wasn't all about what we wanted. As parents, we have to listen to what our children are telling us. Not every student wants to go to college or feels equipped to manage its academic rigors.

And I have to think that some of those college-bound Fairfield students graduating next week are asking themselves, "What kind of a job market will I be facing in four or five years?"

They likely are wonder whether they'll find a dream, $100,000-a-year entry-level position or pounding the pavement with hundreds of thousands of other recent college grads, wondering where the jobs are and how to pay off mountainous student loans.

No matter what road our Fairfield students have chosen, I salute all of them. Whatever happens, it's worth the journey.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: