Joan Ray’s college graduation party in December had a theme: Finally!
Finally, finally, finally.
When she started at UNL in 1991, Joan wasn’tsure she’d ever make it to the ceremony at the Bob Devaney Center. Back then,she was only going to take that one class.
Just get through Spanish 101 and then see.
She’d dreamed of going to college when shegraduated high school in 1963, even though her parents were divorced and therewere five kids and not much money.
She even drove up to Wayne State College andtook the ACT, or maybe the SAT, she can’t remember. She waited all summer butnever heard back.
So she went to work in Omaha. And later shemoved to Lincoln and took a job as a secretary. She heard they’d called hername on the first day of classes at Wayne. By then, though, life was pushingher along.
She got married in 1968. She had twodaughters. Laura, then Heather.
“I always wanted to go to school,” Joan sayson the last day of 2008. “But when you’re busy raising a family…”
College didn’t seem possible then.
Even when she started, a divorced single mom,it didn’t seem entirely possible.
But it had nagged at her, not having adegree. She wondered if it embarrassed her girls.
So when Laura started at the university, Joandid, too.
She was 46.
She met three women in that class,middle-aged like her.
When the students broke up into groups topractice vocabulary, or work on projects, they’d put their desks together.
They were the “old group,” says Joan, nownearing her 64th birthday.
The old group came to her graduation lastmonth. Kathleen and Donna and Nancy had all gotten their degrees in themid-90s, but they stayed in touch with Joan.
After she made it through that first class,Joan took the next Spanish night class. Then the next.
Her friend Kathleen was in that class withher. She remembered when Joan stopped coming. She called her.
Joan, I’ve been missing you.
She went back. She finished that class andthen the fourth and last language class, working full time, paying her springtuition with her IRS refund and making payments on the fall bill.
Suddenly, she had 16 credit hours. Gee, that’sa start, she told herself. A good start.
She became a sociology major and laterswitched to English. Plugging along, one class a semester, year after year.
Last year, after she retired — Joan worked 20years as a secretary for the Lincoln City Council and then in JeffFortenberry’s office — she loaded up her class schedule.
She had classes that flummoxed her during her17-year journey. Statistics was one. Philosophy another. But she loved herEnglish classes. She fell in love with poetry.
One semester she took a graduate-level class,studying William Blake. “That was amazing,” Joan says. “All the students werethere for the joy of the experience.”
The way she was.
And then, on the second Saturday of December,she walked across the Bob Devaney stage.
Her two daughters, both married mothersliving out of state, were there. “I told them I would accept no excuse, shortof childbirth.”
And Laura and Heather wouldn’t have missedit. They were never embarrassed of their mom and now they were so proud.
“Her story is one of perseverance andwonderful achievement,” Laura wrote in a news tip to the paper last month. “Ithink she would be an inspiration to many of your readers. Especially as theythink about how to achieve their goals in 2009.”
Joan knows some people will wonder: Why?
Sometimes in class, a professor would askstudents about their plans after graduation.
Some had jobs lined up. Others worried aboutfinding one.
“I’m going to retire,” Joan would say whenher turn came.
She laughs now, her diploma leaning againstthe piano in her apartment. Did she need this? Maybe, not. Did she want it?
“I’d like to paper my apartment with it.”
Joan felt a little bit silly, at first,putting on her cap and gown and lining up with all those young people juststarting out in the world, just launching their lives and careers.
But as she began to walk to her place,passing those rows and rows of chairs, she began to smile.
And she kept smiling.
Here I am, she thought.