This will be a strange week for Tracy Ausen, a vivid reminder that life can be at once sad and wonderful.

Tuesday night Ausen will graduate from Metropolitan State University, a dream she has had for a mere two decades. Prior to graduation, Ausen, 44, will also be named the fall outstanding undergraduate student in Metropolitan State's College of Management.

Her moment of pride, however, will be overshadowed by another event that evokes strong emotions and tears whenever she talks about it: the closing of the Ford plant in St. Paul, where she worked for 26 years.

"It's kind of bittersweet," said Ausen. "I'm a product of my environment. The culture and people at the Ford plant made me who I am. It's a special place."

Ausen never intended to spend much of her adult life working at Ford. "I didn't even know the plant existed" when she applied on a lark, she said. Ausen had gone to Winona State University, where "studying wasn't a priority," then dropped out and moved back to the Twin Cities to flip burgers at McDonald's.

Her boyfriend at the time was taking an exam to work at Ford, and Ausen bet him she could do better on the test than he did. She won and got offered a job. (He got one, too.)

Ausen took the job after finding out Ford paid for college. It was supposed to be a temporary gig, but Ausen found her co-workers to be uncommonly hard workers who accepted and supported her. So she stayed, and thrived. Although she didn't take advantage of the free tuition, the goal of a college education remained in the back of her mind.

The plant offered her, as a young woman, many opportunities to advance. She enrolled in an apprentice program and became the plant's first female toolmaker in 1994.

"I really thought about it because I knew I could face ridicule being the first woman," said Ausen. "It also meant I wasn't going to school for business."

What happened surprised her. "I didn't face the adversity I thought I would. For the most part, the guys and the system were willing to help me and teach me," she said.

Ausen was active in the United Auto Workers union, and became a diversity supervisor, charged with helping other women get into the trades. "The union culture was all about being active in the community," she said. "I learned a lot about the dignity of work, and compassion and a lot of things you don't learn from a college textbook. I don't think this story is about me, it should be about the plant. The people there are like no other. They put their heart into that job. Ford is making a terrible mistake."

When Ausen learned that the plant was finally closing, she jumped back into classes at Metro State, a school with a reputation for working with older and more atypical college students. Again, Ausen excelled.

"Tracy is one of those wonderfully independent people who has managed to juggle work, family and education," said her adviser at Metro State, Jeanne Cornish. "She has been an absolutely stellar student. You don't see a student with a 4.0 grade point average very often in the school of management, and that's what she has. She has the moxie and smarts and a willingness to work hard, and she returned to school in a very conscious way."

Cornish said the school also looks at community involvement when naming the outstanding student. Ausen did not share her community work with me, but Cornish did, ticking off a long list of organizations that includes volunteering at a food shelf, at social agencies and even tornado relief. The résumé made Cornish wonder: "When does she sleep?"

As a member of the advisory board for the UAW/Ford Dislocated Worker Program, Ausen knows she is one of the lucky ones. She recently landed a job in Detroit for the international's education department. She also plans to continue her education by working toward a master's degree in management and organizational behavior.

Ausen was raised by a white-collar father and blue-collar mother, and both preached that she could "do anything I wanted." Her education will now help her meld what she's learned from both of those worlds. She will head back to Detroit at the end of the week, but Ausen won't ever forget her co-workers and what they taught her about work and life.

"I will be out there at the [St. Paul] plant every day," she said, unable to hold back tears. "It's going to be very hard." • 612-673-1702