Never too late: A degree 40 years in the making

There are non-traditional students and then, there’s Deborah “Dee” Hopkins. The city-country girl whose childhood was divided between Philadelphia and her grandparents’ North Carolina farm was a bit overwhelmed when she arrived on campus as a freshman.

That was about 20 years before today’s traditional undergrads were born.

A first-generation college student from a military family, Dee enrolled at Heidelberg in 1977. She stayed for two years and then went back home. “When I came here, it was a lot for me to get used to, being from a large city,” she says. Then life happened. She got married and raised three children. Along the way, she had every intention of finishing school – even taking classes from time to time when she could fit them in.

In the back of her mind, though, she always wanted to finish her degree and she wanted her alma mater to be Heidelberg. It was a place where her family – especially her late father – felt comfortable sending her 40 years ago.

With her children now grown, “empty nester” Dee, who still lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, felt in limbo. “I have always had a lot of energy and I needed a place to focus it,” she says. “My inner desire and my children’s insistence became the motivators for me to go back to school.”

This fall, Dee packed her bags and her two dogs, rented an apartment in Tiffin and enrolled full time at Heidelberg to complete her final semester. She rounded up her transcripts and worked with Sue Rife, senior associate director of Admission, to make the transition back to college life.

“In the past, something always came up when I thought about returning,” says Dee, the grandmother of two boys. “Finally, I just said, ‘I’m healthy. I’ve lost all this weight (75 pounds!). I feel good. Now is the time.’”

“It wasn’t until I got here that I knew it was real. This is really happening,” she says. “And Sue has continually encouraged me to come back to the Berg.”

Getting back into the swing of college life has had its mental challenges, but Dee has taken advantage of resources at the Owen Center for Academic and Career Support and tutoring in psychology. Asking for help has been key. Her courses in political science, psychology, music and communication have been fascinating and her professors are “awesome.” She even enjoys her younger classmates.

“Even though I am in class with children who are, for the most part, slightly younger than my children, I feel I am right where I am supposed to be. It’s comfortable for me, but I think they are new to having someone their parents’ age (or older) in class with them,” Dee says.

“I love being a student again. I actually feel more at home here now than I did then, but I need to get back to life.”

After working for years as an administrative assistant, at a newspaper, as a campaign organizer for Hillary Clinton and a volunteer at her local board of elections, “life” might look different for Dee after she’s armed with her bachelor’s degree.

“This is where I started my degree and this is where I want to complete it,” Dee says.

And she will.

A political science major, she’ll finish her coursework in December and graduate in May. You can bet she’ll be among the proud graduates walking across the stage in Hoernemann Stadium to receive her diploma from the university of her choice – Heidelberg.

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