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Oldest-ever Scottsdale Community College grad wants to be student ’till the day I die’

Gwendolyn Carlson doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.

In the days leading up to her college graduation, people kept congratulating her and wanting to hear her story, saying she was an inspiration.

Her school wanted to take photos of her. Her community’s newsletter wanted to write a story.

She sees herself as a struggling student, just like the rest of the nearly 270 graduates who walked in commencement at Scottsdale Community College on Friday.

But Carlson, known as Gwenie to her friends, is 84 years old. She’s the oldest graduate the community college has ever had, the school said.

“I’m 84. What’s your excuse? #old,” her graduation cap reads.

She scored a 4.0 grade-point average and membership in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

“I earned every one of those As,” Carlson said.

Walking across the stage at Friday’s commencement marked Carlson’s first college degree, an associate of arts in anthropology.

But she’s been taking classes on campuses across the country since 1974. Instead of completing a degree, she took classes that interested her. She was intimidated by required math classes until she found a professor at Scottsdale Community College who helped her learn.

Gwendolyn Carlson, 84, gets dressed in her cap and gown for graduation day at Scottsdale Community College on May 11, 2018. Carlson is the oldest person to have ever graduated from Scottsdale Community College.

(Photo: Cheryl Evans/The Republic)

Long road to degree for lifetime learner

The path to this daytook Carlson from poverty, throughout the country, to a major corporate job and, eventually, to the awarding of a degree Friday.

She started teaching herself long before her first college class.

Shortly after she was born, her parents gave her to a family member because having a baby didn’t fit their lifestyle, Carlson said. Education wasn’t prioritized in her household growing up.

She took her education into her own hands early on, something she’s continued to do over decades of work and schooling.

As a 6-year-old, she scrounged for pennies on the streetcar to gather enough money to get to the library.

She graduated from high school, then launched a career at Boeing, starting first as a clerk in the 1960s and working her way up to become an executive assistant to a corporate vice president.

She never stopped learning or taking college classes along the way, but avoided a degree because of those pesky math classes. Instead, she took classes that appealed to her passions.

She’s lived all over the country, including stints in Washington, Alabama, Texas, Idaho and, now, Arizona.

She retired in 1994 after a major health scare: She flat-lined after congestive heart failure. Doctors told her she had three months to live.

Obviously, Carlson didn’t listen.

She also beat breast cancer in 2001.

“You can’t get rid of me,” Carlson said.

She came to Scottsdale in 2011 because the arid climate is better for her migraines.

Her drive to learn brought her to a campus that now feels like home and people who feel like family.

She didn’t intend to get a degree — again, math — but her academic advisers convinced her.

“I should at least have a degree for all my effort," Carlson figured.

Despite an early brush with a math class at another campus that left her in tears, she conquered Scottsdale Community College’s required math class and actually enjoyed it.

She said she enjoyed every class, really. Even the ones that didn’t seem like her thing at first, like art, taught her useful lessons and helped her understand herself and the world better, she said.

She likes to move a lot, saying she usually doesn’t stay in one place for more than five years. She’s already stayed in Arizona for seven, and she doesn’t seem to belooking elsewhere.

Scottsdale Community College’s oldest graduate, Gwendolyn Carlson, 84, poses for a photo on graduation day.

(Photo: Cheryl Evans/The Republic)

‘We did it’

Carlson doesn’t have a family of her own anymore — she divorced long ago, one son died and the other is estranged. But she’s found strong connections with many people on campus, from students to professors to advisers.

“How many people can have a family this big?” she asked.

Barb Ross, a campus adviser to Carlson, said she literally gets knocked down and gets back up again. Carlson had a fall in 2016, but she got a walker and made her way back to campus.

“Just when you think another student would give up, she would power through,” Ross said.

Ahead of Friday’s ceremony, Ross helped Carlson put on her yellow robe. The two women crammed into Ross’ small office at the campus student center, where Ross joked about how long it had been since she helped someone else get dressed.

Ross draped yellow and blue cords over Carlson’s shoulders, signs of her academic honors.

Summa cum laude, the highest distinction.

Carlson wore a medal around her neck, denoting her membership in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

And then that signature cap, the one that challenges people to consider why they can’t accomplish their goals if an 84-year-old can graduate from college.

Ross teared up, hugging Carlson.

“I’m so proud of you,” Ross said.

“We did it,” Carlson said.

Gwendolyn Carlson, 84, walks with her Scottsdale Community College adviser Barb Ross on her graduation day on May 11, 2018. Carlson is the oldest person to have ever graduated from Scottsdale Community College.

(Photo: Cheryl Evans/The Republic)

Anything is possible — except horseback riding

Carlson isn’t done with Scottsdale Community College just yet. She plans to take Spanish classes in the fall to better understand the bilingual environment of Arizona.

She also wants to learn to ride a horse, but that one won’t get checked off her list. When she asked her doctor for an opinion, she heard a resounding "No."

She might try for another degree, too. Administration of Justice Studies sounds intriguing, she said.

She doesn’t have any plans to get a bachelor’s degree, at least not at this point.

“But you never know what I’m going to do,” Carlson said.

Fonda Christopher, another campus adviser, retired in April but came back to campus to see Carlson graduate.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that she’s talking about another degree now,” Christopher said.

It’s not that hard to do what she’s done, Carlson said. People need to set goals, then work hard toward achieving them. And her classmates of younger generations maybe should consider getting out from behind their phones and engaging more with the world, she said.

She wants to live to be 104.

Carlson joked that she wants someone to trip over her body while walking to class one day.

“I want to be that struggling student till the day I die,” she said.

Gwendolyn Carlson (left), 84, gets a kiss from her Scottsdale Community College adviser Barb Ross on her graduation day on May 11, 2018. Carlson is the oldest person to have ever graduated from Scottsdale Community College.

(Photo: Cheryl Evans/The Republic)

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