When Janice Clarice Workman timidly signed up for a pottery class at Gila Community College (GCC) in 2004, all she wanted to do was “play with clay.”
It never crossed her mind that class would change her life, inspire her grandchildren — and even make a little GCC history.
But that’s exactly what the former high school dropout and great-grandmother did on Wednesday when she collected the first Associate of Arts degree in Arts Education ever granted by GCC in front of a happy throng of 300 people drawn to graduation ceremonies for the largest crop of grads in GCC history.
Right up to the end, she could hardly believe she would wear those robes after a lifetime of making do and making sacrifices to raise her family. For that matter, she wasn’t sure she was going to pass her algebra final, since her learning disabilities made math a torment.
But on Wednesday she joined 34 other proud graduates who listened to speeches and then walked across the stage at the First Church of the Nazarene before an overflow crowd of happy friends, family, teachers and supporters.
“I just wanted to see if I could do it,” said Workman of the dogged effort that
lasted for years. “But then I heard my children telling my grandchildren they had to go to college. They said ‘if grandma can do it, you can do it.’”
And now, several of her grandchildren have graduated from Arizona State University. One works as an air traffic controller, another is a teacher in Japan.
Research shows when a parent gets a college degree, it dramatically increases the odds subsequent generations will go through that same door.
“I’m so proud of her,” gushed Workman’s brother, Alan Adams. “She had a hard life — she had children when she was so young. She’s worked so hard — and now she has grandkids and great-grandkids. It’s just inspiring.”
Graduates of the college’s booming nursing program dominated the ranks of black-robed graduates, with a contingent of Associate of General Studies degree holders also out in force.
The speakers included nursing student Jacqueline Rhea Blanch who told her beaming classmates “you may feel funny like I do up here in these robes, but now we’ve got to honor the commitment we’ve made today and put these diplomas to good use.”
GCC English professor James Quinlan advised the graduates to pay attention to who they marry — since that will determine about 90 percent of their happiness — or misery. And furthermore “don’t do anything that wouldn’t make your mother proud of you.”
He urged graduates to savor each day, rather than living for the future or dwelling in the past.
“I tell my students in English 101, this may be as good as it gets. These are the good old days.”
Gila County District Attorney Daisy Flores, on the other hand, told graduates “the best times are ahead of you. It’s up to you to decide who you’re going to be. What is going to make you happy? Whatever that is: Just do it. Nike had that right. You need to decide, so that when you’re sitting in your rocker on your tush looking back, you have absolutely no regrets.”
Flores, herself a cancer survivor who also recovered from a nearly fatal accident, advised graduates to cultivate a defiant attitude in the face of hardship. “Take whatever they give you: I task you to be defiant” no matter what the challenge.
She could have been talking about Workman, who persisted in the face of a lifetime of obstacles. She started out just wanting to create something — and she ended up determined to prove something, both to herself and to those attentively watching grandchildren.
She signed up for a pottery class — and a counselor convinced her to enroll in the additional academic classes that would lead to a degree.
“When I started those academic classes, I just about had a heart attack,” she said. “I went to the first day of my English 101 class and I just about walked out. Everything she was saying, I’d never heard of before.”
All her fears and frustrations came flooding back. “I was discouraged when I was in school,” she said. “I had learning issues I didn’t know I had.”
But she didn’t walk out this time.
She found her joy in the art classes — and her confidence in the academic classes.
“I love to make pretty much everything,” she said. “Sculptures, paintings, dragons, wizards. I take it one day at a time. But I fill my day with things that make me feel wonderful.”
She said that on Wednesday morning she woke up and felt a momentary panic that she hadn’t done her homework. “Then I thought: No, no, no. I’m done.”
She got another bit of news, just before donning her robes. She had spent months studying for her algebra test with the help of a tutor, since it represented the last hurdle. The test itself proved an ordeal. “It took me four and a half hours and half a pack of cigarettes to get through it,” she said apologetically, “I lose my train of thought.”
Her score? One hundred percent.
You go, girl. And great-grandkids: Take note — very careful notes.