Forging ahead with a passion for learning

A grandmother, 75, and a 17-year-old among 580 graduates


Shirley Jackson, a 75-year-old grandmother of four, and Christina White, a 17-year-old who graduated from high school last week, are on opposite ends of the age spectrum in Howard Community College's latest graduating class.

But the pair from Columbia share a passion for education and a willingness to forge their own paths, characteristics that earned them a place among more than 580 students from a variety of backgrounds who received associates' degrees or certificates in the Class of 2006.

Jackson said she had taken several college classes and decided three years ago to work toward her associate's degree in general studies, with an emphasis on business and technology.

"I thought, why not?" said Jackson. "It's important to use your brain to keep it active. And since that was my philosophy, I tried to make it harder by trying to get a degree."

Jackson, who spent much of her life in Pittsburgh, took nursing classes before she stopped to raise her children. Later, she had a 29-year career with Aetna life insurance as a nurse consultant and as a claims representative. Now widowed, she moved to Columbia 17 years ago.

She took most of her classes online, and she said it was difficult at times to keep pace with classmates who have been using computers since elementary school. But she was determined to learn to use the technology.

"My outlook has changed a lot," she said. "My attitude about myself has changed and about seniors. I feel that seniors do have the capability to do things they had not thought they could do. The trick is getting them ... to understand that."

Jackson, who has begun earning her bachelor's degree online from Indiana University, said her family provided an important inspiration.

"I wanted to let my grandchildren see that you're never too old to do whatever it is you want to do. ... You don't have to feel as though an opportunity is lost and gone forever."

As a much-younger member of this year's graduation class, White simultaneously took advantage of the opportunities at the community college and at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel - she earned a high school diploma and her associate's degree on the same day, although she decided to take part only in Friday's high school graduation ceremony.

White started taking classes at HCC as a high school sophomore, and by last summer realized that, with some hard work, she could complete her degree in English.

"It was hard to balance [both workloads] but a lot of the stuff was related. ... I could use information from high school," she said.

At times, she was aware of the difference between her and her classmates.

"It was pretty intimidating at first," she said. "I remember in the first class I took, they would kind of tease me about being with them. After that ... I quit telling people I was in high school."

But the benefits, she said, were worth it.

"I got so much done, and I learned to be a lot more responsible for doing it," she said.

White is planning to attend St. Mary's University in San Antonio, where she lived for many years before moving to Columbia. Even though she has her two-year degree, the university is classifying her as a freshman, and White is anticipating a smooth transition.

"I will make friends in my classes ... and with freshmen through orientation," she said.

The institution she is leaving behind is a far different one from the HCC that graduated 36 students in its first class in 1972, a contrast that Roberta Dillow, president of the college's board of trustees, highlighted at Friday's commencement ceremony.

Among other things, she said, the college has grown from one building into a real campus, with two buildings and a parking garage set to open this year.

"It takes hard work and perseverance to get to this spot," Dillow told the graduates. "You should be very proud of yourselves because we are very proud of you."

Graduates also heard an address by Joan I. Athen, a former HCC trustee, business leader and community college expert for the U.S. Department of Education. Athen encouraged the graduates to volunteer, mentor, staff hot lines, or coach a sports team - "contribute to the well-being of the community," she said.

Athen was awarded an honorary degree, as were James R. Moxley Jr., a former farmer and land developer, and Richard B. Talkin, an attorney. Both men have been active volunteers, fundraisers and financial supporters of the college.

Scott E. Caplan, an HCC student who was killed in a car accident in January, was awarded an honorary degree posthumously.

Samuel Reynolds said he considered skipping the ceremony, but his friends and his wife told him he should celebrate his achievement after taking one class per semester for 10 years to earn his associate's degree in electronics technology.

"I'm kind of glad they talked me into it," he said. "I'm so glad I finally did it."

Reynolds, 44, said after he left the Army, he tried to earn a degree, but had trouble keeping up with multiple classes, family obligations and a career.

Now an engineering assistant at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Reynolds said his slow and steady approach allowed him to keep up with advances in his field. It also made him the first person in his family to earn a college degree.

"I really enjoyed it," he said of the ceremony. While other students seemed anxious to hurry up and get their diplomas, Reynolds said for him "It was just a long time coming. If I could wait that long, this [ceremony] felt like a minute."

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