Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Great grandmother earns bachelor's degree at 63

Priscilla Santiago is probably not what you'd call a traditional student. She was 59 when she got her GED. Following that she earned her associate's degree at Housatonic Community College. And this past May, she completed her bachelor's degree in human services at Post University -- 63 years young, with her husband, three children, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren looking on.

The other week we posted our podcast interview with Priscilla, where she talked about why she went to college at a late age. Today, we have the transcript for you. Read on for the story of how Priscilla was able to jump start her life with education, what kept her going through the tough times, whether she has any regrets, and her words of inspiration and advice to help other working adults go back to school if it's in their dreams.



Janelle: Hi, everyone. Janelle Kozyra here for a Post University podcast. Today we are joined by perhaps one of Post's oldest students, and we say that will all admiration of her commitment to education and lifelong learning. We're here with Priscilla Santiago, who graduated last year from Post at the age of 63.
Priscilla, it's a pleasure to have you on with us.

Priscilla: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be on with you.

Janelle: So tell us a little bit about yourself just to get our readers familiar with you a little bit. Where do you live and where are you from?

Priscilla: I'm originally from New York City, born in the Bronx, raised in Brooklyn. I live in Bridgeport currently, and that's where I was living when I started my classes at Post.

Janelle: Where do you work right now?

Priscilla: I work at The WorkPlace.

Janelle: For people who are not familiar with the Connecticut area, that's CTWorks?

Priscilla: Well, they're affiliated with CTWorks, but that's a different organization. The WorkPlace basically has programs and training programs with scholarships to help people with jobs. They help the veterans, they help people whose unemployment has run out, they basically help guys who have records and are having a hard time finding a job, they help people in mortgage crisis situations. So there's a variety of things that they do. The president is Joe Carbone.

Janelle: So have you pretty much spent your entire career in the HR field?

Priscilla: No. No, I was a forklift driver for 18 years at Bayer Pharmaceuticals, and when they shut down, a place I thought I would retire at, I was left with no choice except to go back to school and get my GED. And then I went and got my associate's and then my master's back-to-back. So I got my GED at a very late age as well.

Janelle: So once you got your GED, then you went to Post to get your associate's?

Priscilla: No, I went to Housatonic in Bridgeport because I never, first of all, I never thought that I would accomplish getting my associate's. Not only did I get it, I got it with honors. I'm a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Beta. And so then I said, OK, I got my associate's. I did an internship at DCFS, the social services. For the position I wanted, they said, well, you have to have a bachelor's. And that's what made me go on to get my bachelor's, because I figured I was too old to continue, I would just stop at my associate's and be thankful for that. But then I wanted the job and I wanted to get my bachelor's. So I was going to go to the University of Bridgeport. But my professor from Housatonic, who was also a professor at Post, said, no, come to Post. You can relate to the people there, and it's a crowd that you'll feel comfortable with, and the professors there are helpful, and you will really like it, and it reminds you of Housatonic, it's a friendly family atmosphere. And I said, OK I'll see. And so I did. I came to Post and everything he told me was right. Everyone reached out to help. The professors were good. Even though some of my classes were difficult, they were understanding. Then there was a period where I had to come out of a class because my mom got very ill and I couldn't attend classes. I was in Virginia for three weeks and then she passed. I came back to continue to graduate, so I was more determined to get my bachelor's. But it was because of the staff and all my professors. There were one or two professors that weren't as helpful, but basically for the most part they were all very helpful to me, especially at my age, because it was difficult for me. The younger people were there and some of my classmates were helpful to me because they understood I'm a grandmother, a great-grandmother. And they understood the difficulties of some of the classes for me, but they helped me get through it.

Janelle: So you were facing a pretty tough time then work-wise. It seemed like your only alternative was to go back to school, get your GED, get your associate's, get your bachelor's, in order to stay on your feet.

Priscilla: Yeah. Yeah, in order to get another job, because I had quit school when I was 16 because I had been raped, and so I didn't look back. I just went working from that point. And when I got the job at Bayer, I said, OK, that's it. This is where I'll retire. And for 18 years I believed that I didn't have to go back and get my education because I'm in a position and it was a good job, benefits and making good money and I'm set. And then they told us Bayer was shutting down, and I was no longer set. So I had no alternative. The person at the unemployment office encouraged me to go back to school, and so reluctant as I was, I did go back. And I'm glad I did. I encourage my kids. My grandkids are proud of me. They ended up continuing on. I had one granddaughter who was getting in trouble in school and not wanting to go, and when I went back to school and did what I did, it encouraged her and she turned her life around. Now she's a dental assistant and I'm very proud of her. And it's because they were encouraged by my determination. If grandma can do it, then I know I can do it. So Post really gave me that inspiration and that incentive. Walking with the graduating class with all those young kids, I felt young again. I felt proud. I was thinking about going back to get my master's, but right now I'm looking to do spiritual counseling and Post doesn't offer that. But otherwise I would go back and get my master's in human services because that's what I got my bachelor's in. But Post was a real big inspiration to me to do that. A lot of my classmates at Housatonic who went to other universities are still complaining about what they had to go through. And so Post really made it convenient. I was able to go on Saturday and I was able to go on Wednesdays in the evening. I would take two or three classes, and was able to get A's and B's, B+'s. My lowest grade was a B. And it's all because of the way that I was instructed. It's all because of the patience, the understanding, and the friendliness that I received from Post, from my advisors, from the day that I walked through the door and I met Trudy. I was just encouraged from that point on, because it was frightening going back to school at my age, wondering if I'd be able to meet the requirements, wondering if I'd be able to keep my grades, wondering if people were going to laugh at me or I'd feel kind of ashamed and embarrassed. Post helped me overcome all of that.

Janelle: Did you ever think when you were younger that you would have a college degree?

Priscilla: No. No, I'm the only one in my family that did it. Other than nieces now and nephews, as far as my siblings, before they died, no, never in my wildest dreams thought -- especially after I quit school at 16. I mean, I knew I wanted to become something, but after I quit school I gave up the thought. I didn't even think I was going to go back to school for my high school diploma. So, no, I had not a clue that I would be walking around with a degree.

Janelle: So now looking back on it all, did education come at the right moment in your life, or do you look back and wish that you had done things differently education-wise?

Priscilla: I wish I had done things different education-wise. But, you know, there's a time for everything and I guess that was my time. It was my time because I missed it and skipped by it in my younger years. If I'd done it when I was younger, oh my goodness, I'd be somebody's supervisor right now or have my own business. But for me, it was an encouragement, especially with the job market. But yeah, no, I wish I had stayed in school and did it while I was younger because I'd be so much more advanced right now. But I'm blessed to have had the opportunity to do it when I did.

Janelle: You mentioned, Priscilla, that your mother passed away while you were taking classes at Post. That is, obviously, one of the challenges of going to school as an adult, having to juggle school with everything else that life throws at you. So was that something where Post was able to give you the flexibility in class scheduling, or did you have to take off a mod here or there to tend to that?

Priscilla: I took off one mod and then I was able to catch back up. But because of the mod that I was in, I was able to go online and do my homework and send stuff in while I was at the hospital with my mom. I was able to take the classes. They gave me that flexibility, yes, they did and with no hassle. I did the paperwork to be able to get the time off, to get their approval from them. They approved it, they didn't give me a hard time about it. I was already stressed and Kathleen worked her magic. She told me not to worry, everything was going to be all right. I was afraid that I wasn't going to be able to graduate with my class and everything, and she helped me get through it.

Janelle: Was Kathleen your advisor?

Priscilla: Yes. Yes, she was.

Janelle: So you were able to graduate right on schedule, then?

Priscilla: Yes.

Janelle: So how long was your program?

Priscilla: Eighteen months. I took the accelerated.

Janelle: And so did you take classes primarily online for that or did you go on-campus, too?

Priscilla: I went on-campus. I mainly went on-campus. I took a couple of classes online, but I mainly traveled from Bridgeport to Waterbury twice a week, and I was taking two classes each time. So I was taking four classes, like three to four classes, each mod so I could stay ahead.

Janelle: So what was that like then? Because you're probably, like you mentioned before, you're probably with younger, more of the traditional college age student. How did you feel?

Priscilla: Well, they treated me with respect. And by going in the evenings and going on Saturday, I didn't encounter too many young people where I felt uncomfortable. Their ages were random and we all kind of related and we helped each other. They helped me in the class. Where they saw that I was struggling, they helped me. And because it was stressful, you know, getting papers in on time, doing research, taking tests, exams -- it was a lot of stress and sometimes there were days that I sat in class and cried and they would help me out.

Janelle: So then throughout your 18 months of taking classes, what kept you going? What drove you? What was your goal?

Priscilla: That's what drove me -- my goal. And I was determined to make my mom proud, even though she wasn't going to live to see it, I was determined to show her that I could do it. And to be an inspiration to my kids. You know, I didn't want to be a quitter and I didn't want my kids to see me quit.

Janelle: How many kids do you have?

Priscilla: I have three children, seven grands, and five great-grands.

Janelle: Wow. Congratulations.

Priscilla: Thank you.

Janelle: What was graduation like for you?

Priscilla: Well, I looked around, and I sat there. I felt proud that I was graduating. My husband was there, my children were there. But I looked around and as I saw the younger kids going up to the stage and everything, and I'm saying, I hope they do something with their life. They're so young. They've got everything ahead of them and I wished that I were younger going up there. But I still held my head up and felt proud, because at my age I did a good thing, and I hope that I have inspired some of the kids that were there. But yeah, at first I was a little uncomfortable because everywhere I turned all I could see were young kids. They were all so happy and they were talking about things they were going to do after graduation. But in my own right, I was truly proud of myself as well.

Janelle: So what's next for you, then, Priscilla?

Priscilla: Like I said, I want to get a degree in spiritual counseling because I want to help children who were abused sexually, who were victims of domestic violence, women and children. My goal is to help the so many out there that are being abused and going through not just physical abuse, but verbal abuse, sexual abuse, drug abuse. And I've done some training in drug, alcohol, and mental health, and I've worked with some victims of abuse out here in Connecticut. My heart is always wanting to help, having been a victim myself. So I've always wanted to help young girls and children because there are so many cases that are not reported, so many who are afraid to tell, so many who have been threatened not to tell. So I just want to reach out and give them guidance, spiritual guidance. But right now the economy being what it is, where I want to work, the state is not hiring because of the freeze. So I am very grateful for the job I have because it's helping me maintain my family, my home. My husband was laid off, and so it's been a struggle. But God has blessed me to keep me working and that I can be a provider. And because of the education that I received, that is helping me keep the job.

Janelle: When you look at the big picture, you look back over the course of your life and the challenges that you have faced and everything that you've been through, what role do you see education playing in your life and achieving your life goals?

Priscilla: A very big role. Very big because without the education, then I'm up against a brick wall. No one is going to hire you, no one is going to even talk to you, if you don't sound like you have some kind of education. Jobs are looking for that. Well, what skills do you have or what education do you have? Do you have a degree? They want more than a high school diploma. It's not about a high school diploma. An associate's now is like a high school diploma. And the bachelor's, OK, I have a bachelor's. They want master's. Education plays a really big part in anything that you want to do today. Before you even think about going for an interview, make sure that you have some kind of education down on that résumé because it plays a big part, especially in today's economy.

Janelle: So, Priscilla, what advice would you have for other working adults out there who might be considering going back to school, who are juggling all of life's responsibilities. They think that they don't have the time, they think that they might not even get into college at this point. What would you say to them to help encourage them and push them to go back to school if they are really wanting to do it?

Priscilla: I would tell them that if this is something that they really want to do, then to go out and do it. They've got a lot of resources that can help them go back. Go talk to advisors. Put in for grants and loans. Do whatever you have to do, but follow your goal because it's so important. Don't feel you're too old, don't feel uncomfortable, don't feel like it's too late and you've been out too long. I quit school when I was 16, OK? I was -- what? -- 59 or 60 when I started getting my high school diploma. It's never too late. It's only too late if you want it to be too late. But if it's in your heart and your mind to go back and do it, you will do it and you can do it and there are people and resources that will help you do it. There are tutors, whatever you need. It's open to you. It's accessible. And if you can't get in one place, don't give up. Go somewhere else. Start in a community college if you can't get in a university. Let that be your starting point, which is what I did with Housatonic. That was my starting point and it just led me. I never thought I'd be in a university, and a big university like Post? Are you kidding me? Never thought. Community college was just the point I thought I would have to stop at. And I would tell them never give up and never give up on your dream. Your lifetime doesn't come but one time. You only have this lifetime one time. You might as well get the most out of it that you can and make the most of it.

Janelle: Thank you, Priscilla. A very uplifting and inspirational story and I hope it gives some motivation to some other working adults and adult learners out there.

Priscilla: I do, too. And I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to do that. I hope that I encourage and help someone out there who is sitting home thinking they can't do it or they're too old or it's too late.

Janelle: Thank you. Everyone, that is Priscilla Santiago. Priscilla, best of luck to you and we would love to stay in touch and keep our readers updated on how you're doing.

Priscilla: Thank you. I would appreciate that. I would love to have you keep in touch with me because who knows? I still may end up back at Post again for my master's.

Janelle: Thank you.

Priscilla: Thank you.

Janelle: Bye!



Have Priscilla's words inspired you? If you've been thinking of going back to school, what do you think your next move will be?