By Sarah Kuper
Lottie Jacks feels like any recent college graduate – glad not to have to study for another final or drag herself to an 8 a.m. class after a long night of studying.
But unlike the average Samford University grad, Jacks is 85 years old.
The octogenarian walked across the Wright Center stage May 14 to receive her degree in biology nearly 65 years after she began her college journey at Samford University, then called Howard University.
“I always finish what I start. In this case, I had to have a driving force to do this … it wasn’t a breeze for me,” Jacks said.
Jacks began college in 1948 on a full scholarship from First Baptist Church of Birmingham. Although she worked hard toward her degree, she decided to drop out in 1951 to marry her longtime romance, William Russell Jacks.
Jacks said she often regretted not finishing college and she always worried she had disappointed the church that gave her the scholarship.
Then, after nearly 60 years of marriage, Jacks’ husband passed away in 2010.
“After he died, I spent too many days just doing nothing in particular. It was lonely,” Jacks said.
It was time, Jacks said, to finish what she started and get her diploma.
Luckily, many of her credits from 65 years ago were still on record and she only needed one more year of classes to earn the degree.
Jacks said many things were different this time around.
“They didn’t even have ecology classes in 1948 and I had to take two this past year,” she said.
She also notes how Samford had many more resources for students than it did when she first attended.
“I needed help with writing and so I went to the creative writing department and they helped me write a scientific paper for my independent study,” she said. “Another department helped me print up my poster.”
Going in, Jacks worried that she wouldn’t be accepted by the other, much younger, students and that she wouldn’t be able to keep up.
“But everyone was so nice to me and eager to get to know me,” she said. “Professors even gave me opportunities for extra points if I needed it.”
Now that she has her biology degree, Jacks not only has a sense of accomplishment but also a renewed outlook on the world around her.
“After a year of education at my age, it makes me look at life entirely differently,” she said, “especially nature and everything around me.”
But returning to a rigorous academic schedule was not a walk in the park for Jacks.
“There were times I felt overwhelmed and thought to myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But I really grew in my faith because of the experience.”
Jacks said she prayed throughout the year that God would be pleased with her efforts and even prayed the college student prayer that she would retain all the information from courses.
Despite the difficulty of her classwork, Jacks said she was able to enjoy and appreciate college more at 85 years old.
Between the beginning of her college career and her recent graduation, Jacks raised four children, worked as a medical technician and was heavily involved in her church and community.
She said she always tried to be an example of perseverance to her children, even up to her recent graduation.
“They are proud of me,” she said. “I didn’t go in thinking it was this big accomplishment, but I wanted to persevere toward my goal. … I did not expect all this attention.”
Jacks said she received a box full of notes from friends, family and classmates and many of her professors came to her graduation party.
She said she is particularly thankful to Samford University for giving her the opportunity to go back and making the experience so great.
“Every person I met at Samford was polite and kind. I got a lot of encouragement from the school.”
Jacks’ advice to anyone wanting to go back to school or achieve any longtime goal is to at least get started.
“If you have really been dreaming about something for a long time, at least try. If you don’t succeed it won’t be a huge catastrophe because you will know you tried.”
Now that Jacks has her diploma, she plans on going back to life as a non-collegiate, living and serving the community in Vestavia Hills.
But her work studying turkey vultures for her senior independent study has garnered attention from the Audubon Society, and her poster hangs in the school even after her graduation.