81-year-old graduates from University of Akron: 'A mind is a terrible thing to waste'

Jennifer Pignolet
Akron Beacon Journal
Dora Clark, 81, graduated from the University of Akron on Saturday. She first started taking classes in 1979.
  • Dora Clark graduated from the University of Akron at 81 years old last week.
  • Clark first started taking classes at the University of Akron in 1979.
  • She wants to continue learning and earn a certificate in communications, with a possibility of also pursuing seminary school.

AKRON, Ohio — Dora Clark never planned on graduating from college

She just wanted to keep learning. 

The 81-year-old Clark went to a segregated high school in Virginia, graduating at a time when college options for Black students like her were slim to none. 

But in 1979, after moving to Ohio, she started taking classes at the University of Akron

After years of moving in and out of school, Dora Clark graduated from college last weekend. Not only did she graduate, she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree.

"A mind is a terrible thing to waste, so I figured let me just keep it active as I get older," Clark said. 

Clark retired from a career as a receptionist and a stenographer, but at one point thought she would be a nurse. She took a few general education and science courses, but then dropped out.

She enrolled back in 2008, at the age of 67, not with a goal of graduating, but with a hunger to learn. Through Akron's Adult Focus program, she took a class here, a class there – sometimes two or three classes at once and sometimes none at all. 

She had the option to audit classes or take them for credit. She figured if she was going to do all the work anyway, she should get credit for it.

Slowly, her credits built. Clark first earned two associate degrees – one in arts and one in science, and both with distinction. Then last week, she got a call saying that she had enough credits to graduate with her bachelor's in organizational supervision. 

It still hadn't sunk in for her until she walked across the stage Saturday in her black cap and gown and golden yellow sash, with the audience applauding. Young kids approached her afterward and asked to take pictures with her. 

"I didn't even know them," she said. "I felt honored when they wanted to do that."

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'I encouraged them to do better'

For Clark, taking classes was about doing something for herself. But she's also seen the ripple effect her dedication to learning has had on her family and the other students around her. 

Clark never married and has no children, but said her many nieces, nephews, great-nieces and -nephews, and great-great-nieces and -nephews have drawn inspiration from her – thinking if Aunt Dora can go back to school or stay in school, they can, too. 

"I encouraged them to do better than I can do," she said. 

The students in her classes were always respectful, Clark said, noting that her presence there may have encouraged some to participate more or study harder. She never let a teacher's question to the class go unanswered, prompting others to speak up more as well. 

When she would get an A on a test or a paper, Clark said, other students would ask her how she did it. It was all about preparation, she told them. But she also tutored many of them along the way.

"I would just give them tips on studying," she said. "Sometimes I would just say, 'Well look, I'm free, what time can I meet with you?' "

She liked being around younger people, too, forgetting that many people her age are slowing down, and that her body might prefer she did as well. She often walked to campus from her home, taking a cab on the days when she needed to do research and lug home a stack of books. 

Pandemic forces Dora Clark's studies online

Every time she had a question or turned in an assignment, she went to the teacher directly. Which means when COVID-19 hit, and all classes went online, Clark faced a hurdle bigger than most – she had rarely, if ever, been online before.

"I never really had to use it for anything," she said. 

But with the help of her local library, Clark mastered the internet anyway, figuring out how to participate in classes and group projects, writing out her chat box text ahead of time so she could take her time and then have something to share with the group. 

"It was just something you had to do," she said. "Do your best or don’t do it at all."

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She didn't let the pandemic stop her continuing her education, and she doesn't plan to let graduating stop her, either. She wants to continue learning and to earn a certificate in communications. She loves giving speeches at church and wants to continue that work, possibly in seminary school. 

"If you have a desire to learn, you can," Clark said. "And that's what I like to do."

Follow Jennifer Pignolet on Twitter: @JenPignolet.