Dreaming By Degrees

Her college days stretched into 27 years, yet nothing could keep Carolyn Lorraine Smith from graduating

Class of 2000

Portraits of Inspiration

May 23, 2000|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

She struck it rich once: $50,000! Before taxes, that is.

She got really sick once. As in, couldn't get out of bed, make a fist or feed herself.

She had babies. Two.

She worked full-time. A quarter century at the Federal Reserve Bank.

She got sick again and again.

She had her church life. And a social life. And don't forget her husband, Henry.

Life is exactly what happened while Carolyn Lorraine Smith was trying to graduate from college.

And she had the textbook anxiety dreams to prove it: She would show up in the wrong classroom or go to her school locker, then forget the combination.

But even in her strangest dreams, 51-year-old Carolyn Smith of Woodlawn never imagined she would take 27 years to graduate.

"I would wake up in the morning and literally say, `I want this degree so bad I can taste it.' "

On Friday, at the Lyric Theatre, Smith will graduate from the University of Baltimore with a bachelor of science degree in marketing. "Bless her heart," says her academic adviser, Joan Wickman. "She's done it course by course by course -- and she still smiles."

Maybe Smith will use her marketing degree to enhance her cake-decorating hobby. Or maybe she'll simply show it off in a very large frame in her living room. The point is that between her first class in 1973 (Principles of Accounting) and her last class in 2000 (Marketing Research), Carolyn Smith became an educated woman.

"I did it for me," Smith says. "And I did it for my kids. I wanted them to have an educated mom."

"Young Married Couple $50,000 Lottery Winners." The newspaper headline appeared in 1973, and the accompanying photograph showed two young people with very big smiles and even bigger Afros.

The Smiths had just won a heap of money, and Carolyn, who years earlier had quit what was then Baltimore Junior College, thought twice about her recent urge to resume school. Maybe with the money, I don't need to go back to school, she thought.

But something kept bugging her, that something being her. I'm not a quitter. The 24-year-old Smith enrolled in the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore. It was not an auspicious start; she got a "D" in Principles of Accounting and had to retake the course. Three years later, Jared was born. Another three years passed, and Chrystal arrived. Before she knew it, a decade or so had elapsed without Smith having completed another college course. She was still working full-time at the Federal Reserve Bank in Baltimore. She was active in her church and in the Maryland Association of Urban Bankers. Who had time to go to night school?

Keeping the door open

Still, she kept the door open. She enrolled in a course at least once every three semesters. If she didn't, she would have to start all over at the University of Baltimore. After years of enrolling and dropping courses, she resumed her college career in earnest in the late 1980s.

In those years, Smith went to night school and took a course or two a semester. Her husband, Henry, was there to help with the kids' homework and cook. As their children grew, Smith plowed toward what seemed an elusive dream.

Illnesses and medical emergencies, including benign breast tumors and a hernia operation, further slowed her progress. On nights when she couldn't attend class, her husband would go and take notes.

But what was wrong with his wife? Why all these illnesses? After becoming seriously ill in 1994, Smith was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome -- an inherited chronic disorder marked by frail blood vessels and over-extended joints. Her troubling habit of bruising easily was finally explained. She also learned that hers was a severe case.

"I was not supposed to make it out of my 40s."

College, once again, had to be postponed. It took months of physical therapy before Smith had the strength to get out of bed, feed and dress herself. All the while, her family worked as a team, with Mom still coaching.

"One of her famous lessons," Chrystal recalls, "was when you erase something with a pencil, you erase it well." There would be no sloppy homework in the Smith household. Chrystal, a political science major at Morgan State University, spent many late nights perfecting school projects under the watchful eyes of her parents. "It paid off. I would get an A."

By 1998, Smith was feeling relatively healthy. Her family urged her to go back to school.

"It took me a couple of years to get my courage," she says. On the cusp of turning 50, she returned to her old stomping ground, the University of Baltimore campus.

Carolyn winced when someone asked, "When are you going to graduate?" It was like asking a middle-aged woman, "Why aren't you married yet?" No, "I'm not here getting my master's," she would tell inquiring minds. "Still chiseling away at my bachelor's degree."

By then, she was not alone in the quest for a college diploma. Her son, Jared, was at Morgan State, majoring in accounting.

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