Sisters take the long road to Georgia State degrees

April Lewis and Willa Mae Brown are sisters, in so many ways.

They talk about every day. They’ve worked together. They also earned associate degrees this month from Georgia State University’s Perimeter campus taking the same pathways — science and general studies.

But what’s remarkable to many is their journey to their degrees: They both started their college education in 1976.

Lewis, 64, and Brown, 68, began their studies at what was then called DeKalb Community College. Their academic pursuits were interrupted by life: three children each and carving out careers to provide for their families.

Still, here and there, the sisters took college courses that they thought would help better themselves. It wasn’t until one faculty adviser told Lewis she was close to having enough credits to attain her degree that she began her quest in full. Lewis talked to Brown about them both completing their degrees.

“I just wanted my children to know no matter what age you are, just continue to pursue your education,” Lewis said. “I want to set an example and finish what I started.”

Brown, who has 10 grandchildren and six great grandchildren, shared that sentiment.

“I don’t like to be defeated,” she said.

GSU officials and family members are thrilled by the sisters’ accomplishment. They received a standing ovation from some audience members at commencement after getting a shout-out from the dean. Brown, somewhat more reserved and a little nervous at the commencement, didn’t understand the big fuss. Lewis, meanwhile, wore a sign on her cap that read “40 plus years.”

The family celebration included Brown’s son, Frank, who traveled from Switzerland.

“It’s so inspirational,” he said. “It’s really beyond words. It shows with persistence, you can achieve anything.”

Originally from New York City, Brown and Lewis moved to the Clarkston area in 1975 and chose DeKalb Community College because it was the closest campus. Some family members were educators, who stressed the importance of learning.

The sisters paid for most of their classes, but in recent years took advantage of a University System of Georgia program that allows anyone 62 and older to take courses for associate and bachelor’s courses for free, as long as they meet certain academic requirements. This fall, there were 366 Georgia State seniors in the program. More than 1,100 students received the fee waiver this semester in all 28 campuses, according to University System data. The waiver program began more than three decades ago.

Brown and Lewis still carry some ID badges from their early days at DeKalb Community College. Hairstyles are the biggest change from those pictures. Brown initially focused on early childhood education. Lewis studied biology and music. Occasionally, they took the same courses — biology, and swimming, as part of the physical education requirement.

Both women discontinued their full-time studies once they became mothers. Lewis worked at a beauty salon and then started her own salon. At one point, Brown worked with her sister at the salon. Lewis worked at DeKalb Medical Center and took college courses to earn her Certified Nurse Aide license. A counselor noticed how close Lewis was to getting her degree and discussed it with her.

“April, ‘What are you going to do with all those classes?’ ” she recalled him saying. “Why don’t you complete your degree?”

Brown, meanwhile, loved learning and occasionally took college classes as she worked as a driver, first for the Gwinnett County bus system and later the county’s school district. Her husband taught her how to drive tractor-trailers, which piqued her interest in driving big vehicles. As much as she enjoyed reading about authors like Virginia Woolf, Brown wanted a plan after retirement — possibly working as a receptionist — and took more classes to get her degree.

Taking the classes brought its own set of challenges. Brown often worried about writing essays that show “you really know what you’re talking about.” Her son remembered Brown’s troubles learning how to use a computer. For Lewis, anatomy experiments, were “an experience.”

Lewis recalled some younger classmates were hesitant to have her as a partner on projects, unsure if she knew the material. They learned she knew. “Then they realized you are on the ball,” Lewis said.

Faculty and staff sometimes helped. The library staff assisted Lewis in inserting classwork in Dropbox.

Scott Pieper, the GSU Decatur campus reference librarian, worked with Lewis through various computer issues and research. He was surprised to learn when Lewis began her collegiate career and thrilled when he heard she was close to graduating.

“She stuck with it,” he said. “It’s such a great representation of so many of our students who’ve overcome obstacles.”

And they’re not done. Both plan to take classes this summer.

“It feels like we got over one hurdle, but we have plenty more to go,” said Lewis.

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