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It’s Never Too Late to Start Again

By: Jennifer Ward

Mary Ellen Paez, 68, is looking to achieve what many people her age wouldn't dare dream of: graduate college. (Photo by: Jennifer Ward)

Mary Ellen Paez strides into the lobby of the Humanities Building, arms full of books, and a bag slung over her shoulder. She sits down and situates herself. The first thing she says is how her professor was asking if anybody remembered the lesson they were learning from high school, “As if I would remember that!”

That’s because Paez isn’t just a few years out of high school, but decades. This 68-year-old liberal studies major is now a graduating senior, who hopes her senior capstone inspires others to return to college. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Now I know people say, ‘Don’t ask a woman her age,’ but this is kind of the whole story. So you’re 68? You don’t look it, that’s crazy. 

Oh, thank you! I’ve been a senior, well a senior student, but a senior citizen as well for many years now. 

So you went to college when you graduated high school, where?

I did one year of college at Lehman College in the Bronx because they had a great science program. Back in my day in the 70s- I know, I’m dating myself- if you excelled in math and science you were going to be a nurse. I did very well first year of college taking all the prerequisites. But, in the second year of college, we had to start going to the hospitals. I thought, ‘I really don’t like blood, I really don’t think I can do this.’ So I stopped college. I got a job and thought ‘I’m going to work for six months then I’ll go back to school.’ Well, I worked for almost 40 years until I came back to college. 

Paez and her sisters, Thresa and Jennifer, with their artwork. (Photo via: Mary Ellen Paez)

So what is your senior project idea?

My senior project idea, rightfully so, is the nontraditional student and the journey to getting that higher education degree. 

I love that idea! I think the senior project ideas that are a little personal always end up being the best in my mind. 

I hope so! 

Well, I’m a sucker for a good passion project, so I definitely think that’s such a good idea. So what has the process been like gearing towards doing this senior project?

I started with the idea of why adults return to college. I was always intimidated by this senior capstone, but my fear has since gone away. Right now I have a 4.07 GPA, I can’t help but think, ‘What if I bomb this senior capstone and bring down my GPA?’ Who cares right? But I care. So I want to do good.

What has been your biggest surprise when doing your senior project?

I thought I knew it all because I’ve walked this journey, but I have to do a lot more research than I originally thought. I want to see what others are like. Everyone has a different story. My thought process from a year ago is taking some different turns. As you know when writing you’re going in different directions and having to consider other ideas. Your senior paper isn’t one basic idea, many things will come into it. 

So do you have any plans at all of what to do with your degree? 

I’m going to hang it on my wall. I’m throwing myself a big graduation party the day after graduation, and that’s the plan. A lot of my friends now who I worked with can’t understand, ‘Are you going to get another job?’ No. It’s something I just wanted to do. People say it’s that piece of paper, I want that piece of paper. It was always important to me. 

So you only take one to two classes a semester, why did you spread out your schedule?

It’s just what I wanted to do. Could I have gotten my degree sooner? Yes. But I wanted to travel. I get stressed with my classes and put time into my homework. I didn’t want to make it so that I’d hate it and quit. This was not something I was going to quit.

So did you complete this degree in four years? 

No, it’s been eight years. I came back to school in the Fall of 2018, so it’s been a long time.

I could’ve probably done it in four years, but I just didn’t want to stress myself out to that point. Could I have done it and got C’s in my classes? Yeah. But even in high school, I was always an A student, a high achiever. So for me, it had to be that or I wasn’t going to be comfortable with it. 

I get the same way, I mean why put all this work if I’m not going to do the best I can?

I know, right? You’ll be like that when you start working, too. I worked in local government in an entrance-level job making $7,000 a year. Through the years I kept getting promoted. When I retired, I was Director of Human Resources for the Department of Social Services in Westchester County. No one knew that I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. My close friends and family know, but my colleagues at work would never believe I didn’t.

What does your schedule look like day-to-day? Like you said you love to travel, hang out with your friends…

Oh, I’m planning a trip right now we’re going to Prague, Salzburg, and Vienna! 

What are some of your favorite places you’ve been to? I’m just curious. 

Italy for sure, I’ve been like three times! You must go! I actually took an Intro to Art History class here and when I went to Italy, I knew the artworks and understood them. I was telling my friends about them when we were with the tour guide. My friends were like, ‘How do you know all this?’ ‘Well, I took an art history class!’

Paez in Vienna, Italy. (Photo via: Mary Ellen Paez)

How do you balance all this?

My biggest challenge, obstacle, whatever you want to call it, is the technology piece. That’s been my biggest hurdle. I was sitting in class just now with a spiral notebook. I’m the only one in that class taking notes with a spiral notebook.

Even at 21 years old I can’t figure out technology. It’s a joke with all my friends that I don’t know how to do anything on my phone or laptop and I’m constantly asking for help. 

Well, now I don’t feel so bad. My other biggest fear was being an older person sitting in a classroom, I know I’m not stupid but I was so afraid to raise my hand thinking I wouldn’t fit in. But I’ve met not only the most wonderful professors, I met the most wonderful young people who were very interested in what I had to say. So little by little that became a little more comforting to me, and just about every professor I’ve had has privately said to me ‘You bring a whole different perspective into the classroom, Mary Ellen.’ I overcame my fear of being an outcast.

What are you most proud of coming to Purchase?

My son is going to be at my graduation. I’m sorry I’m getting emotional. How many graduates can say that? That their son watched their mom graduate from college. My son graduated from Columbia with his graduate degree. The day he graduated I was so thrilled for him, so he’s going to be thrilled for me.

Paez and her son, Albert, at his graduation from Columbia University in 2012. (Photo via: Mary Ellen Paez)

You’re going to make me cry too! That’s beautiful. Did you imagine you were ever going to have the opportunity to finish your degree? 

I always loved learning. Once you stop wanting to learn things, that’s not a good sign. I’ve gotten so much criticism from my friends, ‘Why would you do this?’ They don’t understand that I want to learn, and I’ve enjoyed every class I’ve taken for one reason or another. I always tell people, that your college degree will never go to waste. You’re never going to say, ‘I should have never done that.’ Never. Maybe not right now when you’re exhausted, but it’s never going to be wasted. 

If you could give any advice to a 20-year-old you who never ended up getting to finish her degree, what would you say?

I would’ve loved to go away to school. But here’s the thing when I think about it, my whole life would have been different. I would’ve, hopefully, graduated. I’d move somewhere else in the state. Married someone different, had a different child. You’ll see when you get older. I think, for someone in my position, you come back here with a different appreciation for everything. The good, the bad, the ugly. 

Paez, her son Albert, and her daughter-in-law Kate at their wedding in 2021. (Photo via: Mary Ellen Paez)

So, do you have any advice for anyone who may be a little older looking to come back and finish their degree? 

Come! For whatever reason or for no reason, just do it. It’s such a worthwhile thing and you’ll never be sorry that you did it. On the way I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But I had that vision of me walking that stage and having that degree. As a woman, we put everybody else first. Children, my aging parents. But then you have to say, I have to do something for me.



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