In a sea of brown, blond, black, tawny, honey and even green coiffed heads, Cathy Keaton’s snow white bob stands out in English professor Myra Seaman’s Introduction to English Studies class.
Keaton is a rare breed of nontraditional student – at 65 years old, she’s just a handful of credit hours away from earning her bachelor’s degree, following a successful career in the nonprofit world.
With her later-in-life goal of earning a bachelor’s degree viewed as something of an oddity by her friends and much younger classmates, Keaton says she’s often deflecting the all too frequent question about what someone her age might do with a college degree. “Hang it on my wall,” she usually quips.
In reality, the goal of earning a bachelor’s degree is one that Keaton has wanted to fulfill since she was a teenager. She enrolled at Baptist College, now Charleston Southern University, in 1969 at the age of 18, but found herself in a whirlwind romance that led to marriage by the end of her first semester. Keaton didn’t return to college after that. Instead, she worked while her husband completed his degree, before the young couple started a family.
Even though she always thought about returning to college, life kept getting in the way. Keaton notes that her 1950s upbringing, which put a high value on the traditional female roles of wife and mother, conflicted with her desire to pursue higher education.
A bright and friendly person, Keaton eventually made a career for herself in the human services world, climbing the ladder at Trident United Way where she rose through the ranks to become service center director and community trainer. In those roles, she led efforts that centered on helping connect members of the community to the right resources in times of personal or financial crisis.
But, she says, despite her professional success, the lack of a college degree was a hurdle that proved difficult to overcome.
“As I started moving up in my field, it became more and more evident that without [a diploma] I wasn’t validated in a way, and it actually kept me from applying for a number of jobs because [the positions] said ‘degree required,’” Keaton explains. “Everybody says, ‘Oh it’s just a piece of paper,’ but in today’s world that piece of paper can be your ticket.”
Three years ago Keaton decided to get that piece of paper as a full-time student, leaving her post at the United Way following organizational changes at the nonprofit. She initially enrolled in the College’s senior citizen program before earning enough credits to transfer as a degree-seeking student.
Those early semesters were rough, Keaton recalls. Surrounded by newly minted high school graduates unsure of what to make of their much older classmate, she struggled to get her footing in class. Despite her misgivings, Keaton survived and is now seen as just another student among her twenty-something peers.
Aiming to complete her degree in the spring, Keaton says her “dream” is to continue her studies and earn a master of fine arts in creative writing, a new graduate program that launched in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in the fall of 2016.
Keaton’s ultimate goal would be to bring the literary arts to untraditional audiences such as women living in a halfway house. She also wants to write fiction, personal essays and plays for publication. Or maybe she’ll try teaching.
“I really don’t have any limitations on where I want to go or what I want to do with this,” she says.