Of the nearly 600 Joliet Junior College students participating in Friday’s graduation ceremony, Shirley Crowell, 84, probably had one of the longest roads to getting her degree.
This year, Crowell will earn her associate in general studies degree after taking college courses for the better part of 50 years.
The Chicago native and 20-year resident of Bolingbrook has been taking college classes for decades going back to the 1960s when she first enrolled at the then-Loop Junior College, now Harold Washington College. She also worked as an administrative assistant while she was going to school part time.
“When I came along, a college degree wasn’t necessary to put a little food on the table,” Crowell said.
But she said as time went on and technology developed, she realized she needed to go back to school “so I could keep up.”
In 1982, she moved to Boise, Idaho, to be close to her daughter, who was in the U.S. Navy. There she worked for Heinz, the condiment company, which paid her to take classes at Boise State University.
Crowell and her family eventually moved back to the Chicago area and settled in Bolingbrook, where she lives with her daughter. Crowell worked part time as a receptionist for the Community Service Council of Northern Will County from 2004 until her retirement in 2011.
She had been taking classes toward a degree in business at the College of DuPage, but when she moved to Will County, she decided to enroll at Joliet Junior College in 2004. She needed to convert her credits and take some more classes toward a general studies degree, but she was determined to finish.
Crowell said that JJC offered a number of advantages for her, especially because, by that time, she was limited in getting around. She said she didn’t like to drive at night and working during the day made that challenging.
But between being able to take weekend classes, online classes and renting instructor videos, she was able to successfully continue her education. Crowell also liked being able to attend classes at JJC’s northern campus in Romeoville, which was a little closer to home for her. On average, she’d usually take one or two classes per semester.
Crowell said she still has one more class to fulfill all of her credit requirements. She’ll officially wrap up her degree by taking a psychology 101 course online this summer. She said she worked closely with Heidi Munsey, a JJC associate professor and counselor, to make sure she could graduate and walk at Friday’s ceremony.
“I was so elated,” she said.
Munsey said Crowell made an impression on her from the moment they met and that she used her story to encourage other adult students.
“She’s doing this because she values education, loves learning and wanted to lead by example to show her family that education is important,” Munsey said in a news release.
Crowell said she stressed education to her two children and two grandchildren, and she will continue to do so with her three great-grandchildren.
Several family members were with her at Friday’s ceremony.
Crowell also hopes her story will help and inspire others because she admitted there were times she was unsure if she would finish.
“If I can encourage anybody, don’t give up on yourself,” she said. “Just keep going. If you have some good goals, go after it.”
Still, Crowell said there is a chance she may still continue education past her JJC degree.
“I’m not going to commit to it now,” she said.
“Because you know at this young age,” she said, “you live one day at a time. We’ll see what happens.”