|Posted on December 13, 2016 at 4:20 PM|
When it All Comes Into Focus…Graduating After 50
By Tracy L. Darity
Sunday night I graduated from college, earning my first bachelor’s degree. It was an emotional day from the second I opened my eyes. I thought it strange that something that seemed unattainable a decade ago was now mine. All it took now was for me to get out of the bed, get dressed and go get it. There were times in my late 20's when I told myself "It doesn't matter anymore." By the time I was well into my 30's I asked myself "What's the point?" When my 40's rolled around I was kicking myself for not going for it. It was during this phase I was laid-off from a job with a company I had worked for over nine years.
There were other challenges going on in my personal life, like my daughter Jasmin aging out of the public school system (she was diagnosed with Autism around the age of two). My dad had passed away less than a month earlier, and I was simply at a crossroad. Soon after, I decided to take a few courses at the University of Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) not only to improve my writing skills, but to help pass the time and keep my mind stimulated.
It had been decades since I had been on anyone’s college campus so when the bill came for the three courses I was taking, confusion set in. My daughter told me, "Mommy they don't give financial aid to non-degree seeking students." Unfortunately, it was two months into the semester when I was told the money was due, so I was pretty much stuck. I went to the financial aid office to work-out a payment plan. The woman behind the counter listened to my story and suggested I go speak to someone in advising to see if I could switch to a degree seeking student. It was late in the evening and some of the advisors had left for the day. Luckily, the director of the department decided to see me. We discussed my past college experience, my current situation and what I wanted to do in the future. Her suggestions, go back to St. Petersburg College (SPC) and finish my associates’ degree, and then come back to USFSP to pursue my bachelors.
In all honesty, the last thing I wanted to do was return to SPC. However, in the spring of 2011 after writing letters to explain why I was such a horrible student in the 80's (fresh out of high school) and how I was a much better human being 25 years later, I grudgingly re-enrolled at SPC. Yes, they saw fit to give me one more chance to correct the errors of my past. Since what I was studying in the 80's was no longer offered in the curriculum, I decided to pursue a degree in Healthcare Informatics. It was all for not, after completing my prerequisites the policies governing the program changed, and it would have taken me a few semesters to get selected, if at all. Oh well, I thought to myself. To finish and move along I switched to a general studies track and earned my associate in arts degree, in the fall of 2012 and marched in the summer of 2013.
I applied for admissions into USFSP that fall and was accepted. Unfortunately, there was still a balance on the courses I had taken a few years earlier. When enrollment opened for the summer of 2014, just months shy of my 50th birthday; I received a letter from USFSP telling me that if I didn't enroll in the upcoming summer session I would have to start the admissions process all over again. At first I was like, you know what, the window of opportunity has pretty much closed. It isn’t like I am going to start a new career at my age, anyway. Then the letter came stating I needed to register for new student orientation. Ok, I thought, I’ll go ahead and maybe someone will be there I can talk to about the remaining balance. Plus, my daughters were asking me not to quit and to see this thing through.
At the end of orientation students were encouraged to register for their courses. This gave me the chance to speak with an advisor, who informed me there were no holds on my account and I was free to register. There had to be a mistake. Not wanting to get my hopes up I told her I would go over the course schedule and register at home. Sure enough, when I selected “add” for my courses, there was no longer a hold on my account. Add to that, when financial aid processed a few weeks later, the outstanding balance was zeroed out.
A New Found Perspective
I shared that history because being a part of the USFSP family changed my perspective on a lot of things. My professors and college mates pushed me to see things differently. At the age of 52 I was blessed to share the stage with about 500 individuals from our campus, a small fraction of the 1000’s that graduated across the bay at our main campus in Tampa.
Of the 500 or so walking with me, there were three in particular that I will always remember. The first is Lequina, a beautiful young woman in her early 20's who was born with a medical condition that confines her body to a wheelchair, but her mind is bright and funny and her thoughts engaging. I’ll never forget the day I looked up and she had my Facebook author page up on her screen. (long story) The next was a 70ish woman named Charlotte. I first met her in one of my literature classes and thought she and two others were senior monitors. Turned out she was a student just like me, who was happy to have someone "older" to share this journey with.
Third was a young man I met when I decided to add a mass communications minor to my curriculum. Albert shared bits and pieces of his life in our classes, but it wasn’t until graduation night that the missing pieces were filled in. He is a military vet who is the sole survivor of an attack on his squad. He suffered PTSD that led to a four year stint in prison. He rose above the obstacles and was named Outstanding Graduate of 2016. I look at these individuals and think, here are people who have probably seen, experienced and endured more in their lives than most of us will in a lifetime. Yet, in the words of Maya Angelou, “Still I (they) Rise.”
If that were not enough, my heart would be touched yet again. As I sat in my seat, heart pumping and bladder pressing, I heard the announcer say a name followed by "Her daughter is here to receive her degree posthumous." At that moment the past 35 years of my life flashed before me. Posthumous. The strain to fight back the emotions came first, followed by the sting in my eyes and then the moisture on my cheeks. I am not sure if the tears were for this young woman who had lost her mom, or were they for her mom who was probably my age, but didn’t get to celebrate her accomplishment; or were they for me. In that moment I thought about my girls who were probably close in age to the girl walking across the stage fighting back her own tears. I thought about all the times I wanted to quit but something happened or someone said something that inspired me. Whatever the reason, I realized in that moment if it were not for the grace of God I may not have been here either to witness any of this, because I would have given up a long time ago.
So I share all of this hoping that it will be an encouragement to someone to go out and do whatever that thing is that you want to do, seize the moment and start the journey today.
Love & Blessings,
Tracy L. Darity is the author of three novels, He Loves Me He Loves Me Not!, Love...Like Snow in Florida on a Hot Summer Day, and The Red Bear Society. Available in print and e-book. To learn more, visit www.TracyLDarity.com or Amazon.com
Categories: Life's Musings