Michigan Woman Once Thought Dead Graduates College

A Michigan woman once believed to have died in a horrific van crash three years ago has graduated from college in Indiana.

Whitney Cerak, of Gaylord, Mich., graduated Saturday from Taylor University and plans to travel soon to Kenya to work with her sister helping children.

"We are excited to see her reach this milestone of graduation. It just didn't seem possible three years ago," Taylor spokesman Jim Garringer said. "In fact, three years ago, we didn't even know that she had survived the accident."

Cerak was thought to have been among the four Taylor students who died with a university staff member on April 26, 2006, after a semi trailer crossed a median and crashed into their van on Interstate 69. They were returning from an event in Fort Wayne to the campus of the evangelical Christian liberal arts school.

The county coroner misidentified Cerak as one of the students who died, and her family even held a funeral for her. But five weeks after the crash, the family of another student, Laura Van Ryn, of Caledonia, Mich., realized the hospitalized young woman they thought was their daughter actually was Cerak.

"She simply got into a van with some friends, and when she woke up she was in the center of this vortex," Garringer said.

Police investigators determined the driver of the semi that struck the van, Robert F. Spencer of Canton Township near Detroit, had fallen asleep at the wheel. He pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and criminal recklessness and was given an eight-year prison sentence with four years suspended. He was released from prison last August.

Cerak has said she plans to travel to Kenya in July and remain there through February.

"We rejoice with her and her family and look forward to what this next stage in life holds for her," Garringer said.