Surprise family visit makes commencement even more special for UA Little Rock grad

Graduate Vivian Littrell, right, reacts with tears of joy after her niece Chauntee Coleman, left, makes a surprise visit to Littrell;s graduation ceremony at UA Little Rock. Photo by Ben Krain.

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock graduate got the surprise of a lifetime when her family from California flew all night to surprise her on graduation day. 

Vivian Littrell’s May 11 graduation from UA Little Rock with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice was already a special event, since the 71-year-old grandmother of four and mother of two from Little Rock was finishing her lifelong goal of earning a college degree.

“I decided that I wanted to complete my bachelor’s degree before my youngest grandchildren were out of high school,” she said. I’ve been out of college since 1984, when I last attended Philander Smith College. I wanted to major in adult education with a minor in psychology. That was my objective back then, but now many years later, I have a different agenda.”

Littrell has always been passionate about helping others and dreamed of being an attorney. She now hopes to use her degree to help minorities navigate the criminal justice system.

“I want to volunteer with a nonprofit to help people navigate the criminal justice system who have no idea what is going on,” she said. So many people are caught up in the criminal justice system that don’t know anything at all about the procedures, and I want to use my knowledge to help them.”

As a divorced single mother, Littrell left college 35 years ago to concentrate on providing for her children. She spent her career working in employment training and counseling and as a recruiter for adult education, so Littrell never forgot the importance of a good education and career. Her family has been immensely supportive and gave her a nudge to return to college.

“It was my daughter Tyrneese who suggested that I return to college after I had bilateral knee surgery in 2011,” she said. “She told me to find something to do, and a good thing to do would be to return to school and complete my bachelor’s degree.”

When Littrell enrolled at UA Little Rock in 2013, she took classes on the Little Rock campus but eventually opted to go online because it was more convenient for her as she cares for her 93-year-old mother. She’s grateful to the many professors and staff members who have helped make her time at UA Little Rock a success.

“When I first came, I was nervous. I’m thankful to Ms. Susan Boling, who helped me a lot. She taught me academic literacy,” Littrell said. “I’m also grateful to criminal justice professors Dr. James Hurst and Dr. Timothy Brown and Ms. Karen Wisdom. Most of my instructors were sensitive to the needs of a nontraditional student and worked with me in getting a clear understanding of what was expected of me. Many of my classmates were kind enough to help me with notetaking in class. I also have to give kudos to the entire staff in Student Support Services and the Disability Resource Center.”

Littrell is also especially grateful to Dr. Andrew Deiser, interim chair of the Department of World Languages, who helped her pass her foreign language requirement.

“I didn’t know anything about a foreign language, and Dr. Deiser tutored me one-on-one himself,” Littrell said. “There are also two young ladies in that division, Bryana Herrera and Autumn Payne, who tutored me as well. Dr. Deiser has helped me more than any other professor at UA Little Rock. He did everything he could to help me pass my Spanish course. Without him, I wouldn’t have graduated. I also wouldn’t have graduated without the help of my department chair, Dr. Mary Parker, or Reed Claiborne from the Disability Resource Center. ”

Since Mother’s Day was the day after graduation, Littrell’s son Corey planned a brunch on Saturday where family members from Bryant, Dumas, Hot Springs, and Little Rock were planning to visit. Littrell, an inquisitive woman who loves a good mystery, had suspicions that her son was keeping a secret.

Graduate Vivian Littrell, right, reacts reacts in shock after her niece Chauntee Coleman, off camera at left, makes a surprise visit to Littrell's graduation ceremony at UA Little Rock on May 11.  Photo by Ben Krain.
Graduate Vivian Littrell, right, reacts reacts in shock after her niece Chauntee Coleman, off camera at left, makes a surprise visit to Littrell’s graduation ceremony at UA Little Rock on May 11. Photo by Ben Krain.

“My son told me I better clean my room before ‘they come,’ and then he trailed off,” she said. “I don’t know who ‘they’ are, and I wonder if someone is coming that I don’t know about.”

On the other side of the country, Littrell’s niece, Chauntee Coleman, graduated from the University of Southern California with a Ph.D. in social work on May 10, one day before Littrell’s graduation. Littrell was disappointed that she wouldn’t get to see her niece graduate, but didn’t know her family had a big surprise in store.

“My aunt has been the rock of the family and has made many sacrifices for her children, nieces, and nephews along the way,” Coleman said. “My entire family and I flew overnight after my graduation to attend my aunt’s graduation and support the final stop of her educational journey. She was quite disappointed that she would not be able to see me graduate due to the proximity of dates.”

At the special brunch where Littrell did not suspect she would receive a surprise visitor, the appearance of her baby sister from California was the first of many surprises.

“During the prayer, while we were holding hands, I felt a sudden jerk then opened my eyes. I saw my baby sister standing next to me! They say I jumped out of my shoes!” Littrell said. “At the graduation, Ben Krain (university photographer) came up to me and told me he had another surprise for me. A woman walked out covered in graduation regalia. I couldn’t figure out who it was. When I realized it was my niece, I lost it. I couldn’t believe she was there. It was just so special. And to learn that my niece’s husband and children had come too, it was more than I could take!”

Littrell’s special day was made even more perfect since her niece was allowed to attend the ceremony and be by her side as she received her degree.

“For the school to take the time to help with this and to let my niece walk and sit with me while I received my degree, it was just overwhelmingly special,” she said. “I will cherish this special moment forever, and I will forever be grateful to God and everyone for making my day so special.”

In the upper right photo, Vivian Littrell, right, reacts with tears of joy after her niece Chauntee Coleman, left, makes a surprise visit to Littrell’s graduation ceremony at UA Little Rock. Photo by Ben Krain. 

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