As 79-year-old Barbara Cole walked across the stage on Saturday, leaning on a cane, assisted by her daughter, applause started.
By the time Cole was handed her bachelor’s degree by Saint Xavier University President Laurie Joyner, the audience of 3,000 that filled the Shannon Center rose to a standing ovation.
Cole had enrolled at Far South Side Saint Xavier in the early 80s, but left with a year left to complete her degree.
Nearly 30 years after aspiring to obtain a bachelor’s degree, Cole did it.
She’s representative of the kind of inspiration one finds this time of year as college graduates across the country gown up to receive that coveted piece of paper representing the fruits of labor.
As Cole passed by, a few feet from where I sat on stage, after delivering Saturday’s commencement speech to Saint Xavier’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, her slow but steady gait, and flowing tears, left me dabbing at my own eyes.
While so many of the college’s 1,100 new graduates possessed noteworthy stories, Joyner noted, Cole’s stood out.
“Barbara Cole came to us in the 1980s as an adult student who wanted to earn her baccalaureate degree, but had to return to work before completing it,” Joyner said in opening remarks.
“One of her dreams has always been to receive a Saint Xavier degree. Today, we will celebrate Barbara achieving her dream and serving as an inspiration to others by proving it’s never too late to further your education.”
Cole, of St. Louis, later shared she was the seventh of 13 children of parents who had always stressed education, despite her father only finishing high school; her mother, a few college courses.
She graduated Lincoln Park High School — at the time, Waller High — in ’57, then studied nursing at Chicago’s famed Provident Hospital & Training School for three years, working as a nurse for many years.
She married, had one child, divorced. Along the way, she obtained her associate’s degree in nursing at a junior college in Los Angeles, returned to Chicago and enrolled at Saint Xavier.
“I attended for about four years, while working. I was maybe two semesters from graduating, when my daughter, who joined the U.S. Navy, was going to be stationed in California, and asked me to go with her,” Cole said.
“After that, she was transferred all over the country. Everywhere she was stationed, I’d take courses at junior colleges. Finally, she was being transferred close to Illinois. She had gotten a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, and I was still trying to get my bachelor’s. I said I’m getting that degree, no matter what,” Cole recounts.
On Saturday, when the applause started, she didn’t initially know it was for her.
“When I looked back and saw everyone standing, I’m like, ‘Good God! That’s for me.’ I felt so truly blessed. All I wanted was that diploma. And to get all that! I was blown away,” she said. “It just shows you never should give up. You gotta keep trying.”
There are many more such stories. At City Colleges of Chicago, a first step toward a college degree for nontraditional students, for example, last weekend’s ceremonies at Wintrust Arena included inspiring graduates like:
• Olive-Harvey College valedictorian Paola Salcedo, a 32-year-old Mexican immigrant, who maintained a 4.0 GPA while parenting three boys and working at a restaurant. Salcedo, of East Chicago, Indiana, is transferring to Governor’s State University, where she plans to study accounting.
• Truman College salutatorian Ginger Dragon, of Andersonville, was a nanny for 6 years before enrolling in college when her own daughter was 7 weeks old, which meant running home for feedings in between classes. Dragon, 32, is interested in medicine, transferring to Northeastern to study biology.
• And Kennedy-King salutatorian Brianna Daniel studied at Alabama A&M University on and off for five years, leaving school to raise two children, working at restaurants to support them. Daniel, 30, of South Chicago, is transferring to University of Illinois Chicago where she’ll study business.
As Cole said, “You never should give up. You gotta keep trying.”
And as I watched a woman who will be 80 in November leave the stage on Saturday, I wasn’t sure if my own tears were due to her inspiring achievement, or the overwhelming emotions suppressed after being conveyed an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Saint Xavier. I suspect it was both.