70-year-old UALR grad fulfills lifelong dream

Phillip Bryant Sr.

Every couple of years, Phillip Bryant Sr. has a nightmare.

“I am in college, and right before I can get my degree, the school would burn up, or it would fall in a hole in the ground,” he said. “It’s always something where I could never get my degree.”

At 70, Bryant has overcome his recurring nightmares and fulfilled a lifelong dream of earning a college degree.

He will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in speech communication Saturday, May 14, from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

What’s a 70-year-old going to do with a degree?

Among other things, Bryant is the self-described last hippie in America to get a college degree.

“What people don’t remember is that 95 percent of hippies got a college degree,” he said. “If I had a hammer, I’d ring out love to my brothers and sisters all over this land.”

His detractors have asked him: What is a 70-year-old going to do with a college degree?

“No. 1, I am putting it in an expensive frame and hanging it on the wall. Isn’t that what everyone else does with their degrees?”

Bryant never set out to earn a degree from UALR. He started taking academic classes in 2013 when he enrolled in a golf course with his friends.

“I came over to get a golf class, and my mind said, ‘take some classes,’” he said. “If you are going to come to a university, you should get educated in something other than golf.”

Bryant greatly enjoyed his music, history, art, and literature classes but discovered that he did not take well to computer and language courses.

His world literature class inspired him so much that he spent the summer of 2013 writing a manuscript, “The Deacons Must Get Paid,” which will be published as a book this year.

Bryant describes it as an “eye-catching, educational, and informative book” that gives an “in-depth understanding of the churches.”

A long road

Born the youngest of eight children in 1946, Bryant quit school in the 11th grade to move to Los Angeles. A year later, he returned to Little Rock to be with his family when his older brother entered the military.

Bryant re-enrolled with the goal of completing high school. However, during his senior year, his wife, Beverly, got pregnant, so Bryant dropped out of high school for the second time to support his growing family.

He spent three years in the U.S. Army from 1966-1969, 18 months stationed at Ft. Polk in Louisiana and the rest in Saigon, Vietnam. He earned his high school GED while serving in the military.

Upon returning from Vietnam, he spent four years taking classes at Arkansas Baptist College, but he never graduated.

“Between 1969 and 1973, I accumulated 109 college credit hours with nothing pointed toward a career,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bryant had already gone into business for himself in 1970, first with a furniture upholstery shop and then with a furniture store.

Eventually, Bryant took up floor covering work, installing carpeting, vinyl, and tile in homes and businesses, which he did until he retired in 2007.

A path to graduation

Bryant had been taking classes at UALR for a year and a half before he realized he could get a degree. He first committed to history but had difficulty filling the foreign language requirement. He then switched to speech communication, where he found a good fit with his interests and skills.

“Once he found the Department of Speech Communication, he knew he had found his home,” said Department Chair April Chatham-Carpenter.  “The courses in the department taught him how to be more reflective about how he communicated with others. These opportunities allowed him to continue his quest for lifelong learning that he had started as a business entrepreneur and owner of multiple businesses, along with his passion for writing poetry and songs.”

As part of his speech communication classes, Bryant participated in a study abroad trip to learn about hybrid cultures in Trinidad during the Thanksgiving holiday in 2015.

“We had nine students in the class,” said Dr. Avinash Thombre, an associate professor of speech communication who led the study abroad trip. “The youngest was 22, and the oldest was Phillip, who was 69. It is a high-energy class. I wondered if he would be able to do it, and it turns out he was the most energetic of the whole class.”

Bryant shows a dedication and enthusiasm that influences younger students, Thombre said.

“He is the most dedicated student I have seen in terms of being on time, coming to class, and trying to understand,” Thombre said. “As a teacher, I think it helps to see somebody in the classroom who is a role model for these younger students.”

Post-graduation plans

While Bryant does not plan to use his degree to get a new job, his classes have inspired him to become a writer.

In addition to the book he has coming out later this year, he is writing two manuscripts he hopes to publish.

As someone who struggled with English classes in junior high and high school, Bryant is thankful to UALR for helping him become a better writer.

“I never thought it was possible that I could write anything inspiring or positive,” he said. “Now that I have gotten older and attended the great UALR and the great Ph.D. professors, the ones that show kindness and love to students, they have inspired me.”

Bryant is also looking forward to celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary on Oct. 29 with Beverly and their 15-year-old grandson, Phillip Bryant III.

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