Degree worth decades-long quest
By Ginny Wray
Wanda Deering’s bachelor’s degree was 45 years in the making.
Deering, 63, of Axton, received her degree on May 11 from Old Dominion University. It was the culmination of a journey that began in 1974 at Ferrum College.
In between, she was married twice, had six children and followed her dreams.
“The desire has to be in you to really want to do it. If you really want to do it, you will have the perseverance to continue. I can’t say it was smooth sailing or was easy. You’ve got to have that perseverance to keep pushing,” she said of earning her bachelor’s degree.
“It is worth it because you have that satisfaction of something only you could complete, and you completed it,” she added.
Deering graduated from Laurel Park High School in 1973. She went to work at Tultex Corp. and then American of Martinsville until she saved enough money to start classes at Ferrum College in 1974. Her original goal was to get a doctorate in psychology but Ferrum didn’t have that major, so she studied business administration.
She completed a year at the college but did not return after she married a fellow student. He joined the military and they moved to England. But four children, numerous moves and 20 years later, the marriage ended.
Throughout those years, Deering went to college when she could, taking classes now and then at Patrick Henry Community College. At one point she studied to become a medical assistant and a certified nursing assistant, but she never completed that. She also was accepted into the PHCC nursing program but did not finish that, either.
“Life” kept getting in the way, she said. “Stuff just got in the way. It was difficult just to go to class and that was before college curriculums were online.”
When Deering was a full-time student in the nursing program, she also worked three part-time jobs. It taught her valuable lessons that she shares with young women today who are juggling school and motherhood.
“Set priorities. You don’t need everything today. If you want to go to school, you have to let go of some stuff,” she said.
Women also have to decide if they want to have children when they are younger or put off motherhood while they attend school and build a career, she said. Deering was physically better able to have children when she was younger, but she said she had more patience when she had her last two at the ages of 39 and 41 after she remarried.
“I think the balance is for young mothers to work part-time,” she said. When their children are older and in school, mothers can focus more on finishing school and having a career.
Deering’s second marriage didn’t last, and working became difficult if not impossible because of an earlier hip injury from a fall. So she and her six children moved in with her mother until she found a home she could buy. Eventually, Deering’s mother passed away and her children grew up and left for college, although the two youngest later returned home.
“For the first time in all those years I didn’t have a kid with me,” she said. “I didn’t have to change diapers or shuttle children to school or activities.
“After some soul searching, I realized I still wanted to go to school,” she said, and her children agreed.
“Maybe they felt because of them I didn’t finish. They wanted me to finish what I started. Also, that was something that was in me all the time but because I was so busy with life and all the children, it was buried within me,” Deering said.
She went back to PHCC and studied human services, especially counseling. She got her associate degree in 2016 and then began online studies at Old Dominion. She lived on a tight budget — something she recommends young people learn to do — and took a semester off when her youngest daughter was hurt in an auto accident.
Three years later, she had accrued about 147 credit hours and said she graduated with a 3.98 grade point average.
Instead of taking part in commencement ceremonies at ODU, Deering chose to travel with other family members to see her grandson graduate from the University of Missouri in Columbia.
She has mixed feelings about graduating from college at the same time as her grandson. “Maybe I should have done this a long time ago,” she said. But at the same time, “I’m happy I finally completed it.”
Deering tried to pass the value she places on education to her children.
“That was the reason why I did as well as I could, to let them know it can be done. I don’t ask my kids to do anything I can’t do myself,” she said.
The oldest is a 1987 Bluefield College graduate who was a communications officer in the U.S. Air Force for three years and now is in business in Berlin, Germany. The next oldest is the mother of seven children. She hated school but now is taking IT certification classes. The third is a lawyer with Nationwide Insurance and also teaches at Akron University in Ohio, and the fourth is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University who now works at The Harvest Foundation in Martinsville. The fifth attended Radford University who now works in early childhood education in Martinsville, and the sixth is “getting himself together to go back to college,” his mother said.
She also has 13 grandchildren.
For now, Deering is open to all options for her future.
“Counseling is my thing but it doesn’t have to be everything I do,” she said.
For instance, she would like to find a way to bridge the gap between children and senior citizens; help young people stay out of trouble; possibly open a private counseling practice; and so on. She doesn’t even rule out going back to school for a master’s degree.
She offers advice to others who think they cannot get their college degree because of age or some other obstacle.
“As long as you are alive and well, don’t give up on your dreams. I was thinking at one point I was too old to go back to school. Then I said, ‘Why not?’
“Age is nothing. You will be surprised at how many young people will look up to you. Some people say, ‘I’m too old to go back to school.’ I say, ‘You’re not too old to go back. I’m 60. You’re just a baby.’”