70-year-old Great-grandmother among University of Phoenix Grads

For 70-year-old Teresita Lee, earning a bachelor’s degree was unfinished business.

By the time she was 15, she had skipped two grades and was named valedictorian of her high school class in the South Texas town of Del Rio. She received scholarships for college, but because her father didn’t think she was old enough to leave home, she didn’t pursue a degree.

Lee didn’t forget about that missed opportunity for more than 50 years. That’s why in August 2007, she decided to become a nontraditional student at a nontraditional school to complete her education.

On Saturday, the mother of three, grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of four took care of her long-standing business — graduating in a black gown with a Bachelor of Science in management from the University of Phoenix.

The ceremony was held at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin. The school — a for-profit educational institution — doesn’t have a traditional campus. It has nearly 200 locations and more 300,000 students enrolled worldwide. Many of the students take their classes online.

"The only reason I did this is to leave my grandchildren and great-grandchildren an inspiration," said Lee, who lives in San Antonio. "It’s not good to quit. Just keep going until you get there."

Lee, who took a four-hour class in San Antonio one night a week while working as a contract linguist for the U.S. government, was among the more than 270 people graduating at the Long Center with associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as doctorates. The ceremony was the third and largest University of Phoenix graduation held in Austin.

The school has a graduation ceremony in Austin once a year, said Chris Helmueller, the university’s vice president for the state of Texas. At different times during the year, he said, ceremonies are also held in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and El Paso.

There’s a University of Phoenix class location at West Braker Lane and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) in Austin and a resource center in South Austin. University of Phoenix students either attend classes, take them online or do both, whatever works best for them, Helmueller said.

For Mary Casillas of Austin, an online student, the University of Phoenix proved to be perfect.

Casillas, 35, has had a rough couple of years. Last year, two of her children died after a house fire in Oklahoma. Four months later, her son had brain surgery. In August, she moved from Oklahoma to Texas with her husband and four children to be closer to her in-laws.

She attended the University of Phoenix before and after the life-altering events. Whenever she took a break from classes, the school would call and encourage her to come back, she said.

"I don’t think I would have this opportunity if I went to any other school," she said.

Casillas, who works in a Progressive insurance call center, graduated Saturday with a Master of Business Administration. Casillas said she did it so she could earn more money for her family and to show her children that a person can always do better.

"I just want them to realize how important education is," she said.

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