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Howard, Md., Community College Brings Graduation to 79-Year-Old Graduate

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

Howard Community College yesterday held a graduation for one.

The institution's Thirty-eighth & 1/2 Commencement Ceremony took place in a back room of the clubhouse at Snowden Overlook, a 55-and-over development in Columbia. College President Kathleen Hetherington delivered the commencement address. She yielded to Vice President Ronald Roberson for the Recognition of Honor Graduate. Then the president returned for the Conferring of Degree.

"Graduate," Hetherington said, "you may now move your tassel from the right side to the left side."

Shirley Jacquelyn Jackson rose, accepted a kiss on the cheek from the president, posed for a picture with a bouquet of red roses and retreated to a hallway to await her great-grandchildren. A few bars into "Pomp and Circumstance," the recessional was over.

Jackson, 79, was to have received her third associate of arts degree back in May, with her class, at the 2009 graduation. But she wasn't there. Jackson had braved "the standing and the crowds" three years ago to receive her first AA degree, she said, "and I knew I couldn't do it again."

College officials took the unprecedented step of staging a full graduation ceremony at Jackson's condominium development. The ceremony was "all legit," Hetherington said, with a printed program, caps and gowns and ceremonial music projected from a boom box.

"Many of us on campus know Mrs. Jackson," she said. "And when we heard that she couldn't make it to graduation, we decided to bring graduation to her."

In the receiving line after the ceremony, Jackson accepted hugs and kisses from two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A neighbor presented a bottle of bubbly. "I'll bring it to canasta," Jackson said.

Jackson came of age in postwar Pittsburgh and trained to be a nurse at a time when doing so did not require a degree. She worked for the Aetna insurance company, put her children through college and moved to Maryland in the late 1980s to be near them after her husband died.

She started taking classes, she said, because "I needed something constructive." At first, she took "not-for-credit, fun kinds of classes." But they were not enough of a challenge. Jackson wanted to show her teenage grandchildren that "learning is for everybody."

In 2003, Jackson began taking a full load of academic courses for credit. The hardest was algebra. The most fun was geology, "digging for garnets up in Carroll County."

In 2006, she received her first degree, in general studies, with an emphasis on business and technology, a notable accomplishment for a woman who hadn't used a computer before going back to school. The second was in English -- she missed that 2007 ceremony -- and the third was in social sciences. Jackson amassed 90 credits at the Howard college. Using her new computer skills, she took 30 credits online at Indiana University. Together, they were enough for a bachelor's degree from Indiana, which she received 12 days before her latest AA degree.

"That's her pushing herself, as she pushed us when we were kids," said Clarence Jackson, her son.

Jackson missed some classes last year when she had open-heart surgery. She took her lessons online on winter days when she was afraid of slipping on ice. But she finished strong, with a 3.6 grade-point average. She was Howard Community College's oldest graduate of 2009. And its last.

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