At 71, Carolyn Wilkerson of Little Rock loves life as a full-time college student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, working to fulfill a lifelong goal of earning a college degree.
“The fact that I have decided to obtain a degree at my age would be surprising to most people,” she said. “Many of my peers are in awe when they discover a grandmother in their classes.”
Wilkerson started attending UA Little Rock in 2016, fulfilling a promise she made to herself many years ago.
“I didn’t go to college when I graduated high school,” she said. “I always said to myself that when I retire, I am going to go to college. After I retired, my daughter opened a daycare, and I started helping her. Then my children reminded me that I said I was going to go. I always wanted a college degree.”
Beginning college at age 68 as an applied communication major turned out to be a unique experience for Wilkerson.
“It was very strange and different,” she said. “I’m like the elephant in the room. When I first started, I would see students eyeing me, wondering what the grandmother was doing in the room. Most of my friends have been the professors, but I have made friends with quite a few young people over the years.”
Wilkerson credits Ida Umphers, senior instructor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, as one of the teachers who has made a difference in her time at UA Little Rock.
“When I came to college, I took an entrance exam. My lowest score was math, so I had to take Foundations of Algebra with Ida Umphers,” Wilkerson said. “That was the first course in my entire life that I didn’t pass. I never considered myself good in math. I had to pass that class. Umphers was so encouraging. When I finished the course the second time, she sent me an email and congratulated me for making an A+ in her class. That was a big hurdle I had to cross. I don’t think I could have gone on if I hadn’t. That is what I consider my most momentous moment here. To fail the class was devastating, but to be able to pass it was amazing.”
The long road to college
After graduating from then Horace Mann Senior High School in 1965, Wilkerson attended Pulaski Vocational School for clerical job training. During her first job after vocational school, she worked for Westinghouse, which is no longer located in Little Rock, and remembers being the first black person in their office pool.
She married her husband, Ronald Wilkerson, in 1993. They have a blended family with a total of seven children, 24 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. Ronald is the pastor of Faith Temple Deliverance Church of God in Christ.
Wilkerson describes being a pastor’s wife as a blessing that comes with many responsibilities. With a small congregation, she is often responsible for creating the church bulletins, doing the budget, cleaning the church, cooking for events, planning church events, and teaching Sunday School. Wilkerson also heads a women’s department with members from seven churches in her district.
Being the eldest of eight children, Wilkerson said her extended family has mixed views on her decision to pursue a college degree.
“I think my family thinks I’m a little crazy when I say that I was up until 3 a.m. working on homework,” she said. “My husband, my 88-year old mother (Bobbie Landers), and children are very supportive, but my brothers and sisters think I have serious issues, except for one brother who went back to school later in life. They accomplished what they wanted to in life, and the last thing they want to do during retirement is go back to school.
“I have two daughters who graduated from UA Little Rock, one that graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, who is a neurologist, two children currently working on master’s degrees, my husband has a master’s degree in divinity from Memphis Theological Seminary, and several grandchildren in college. Education is big because I know the importance of it.”
After she graduates in 2020, Wilkerson will continue to use her education to help students who attend the city-sponsored youth program,Bridge 2 Success, which she has been helping to run since her husband started the program in 2011. The program serves at-risk youth ages 13-19 in Little Rock, both male and female.
“I would like to use the knowledge that I acquire for young people. With my acquisition of life’s tenure and the fact that I am a mother and grandmother coupled with my education, I can provide advice to young people if they will allow me,” Wilkerson said. “Through the youth program, I have already assisted with the use of computers, math, communication, and research skills to help youth at Bridge 2 Success. Some of them have begun to call me Nana and my husband Papa. You sense that they know we care. I do love them. There is no getting around it.”
She has found a home in theDepartment of Applied Communication, where professors like Dr. April Chatham-Carpenter and Dr. Kristen McIntyre have helped her learn valuable skills.
“The Applied Communication Department has introduced me to communication concepts that literally required me to think outside of myself and from another’s point of view,” Wilkerson said. “I now know what it means to consider the value of another’s culture and how we bring value to one another in important ways.”
Wilkerson is thankful to all the people who are helping her complete her goal of earning a college degree at UA Little Rock.
“The sheer fact that I have returned to UA Little Rock for five semesters is proof that it’s never too late to realize a dream,” she said. “My professors and instructors have made me feel included in their classroom structure, without exception. I’ve needed assistance multiple times and I have never felt that it was a bother for any of them. My classroom experience has been great!”
In the upper right photo, 71-year-old Carolyn Wilkerson, left, credits her success as a late in life student to Ida Umphers, right, senior instructor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. Wilkerson says Umphers is one of the teachers who has made a difference in her time at UA Little Rock. Photo by Ben Krain.