ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Of the more than 2,000 beaming graduates in the sea of cherry red caps and gowns at the University of New Mexico’s undergraduate commencement ceremony Saturday, none was more proud of earning a degree than Elaine Lieberman. Not only that, but she no longer has to worry about being mistaken for a professor.
Lieberman, as her husband puts it, is “74 years young.”
“I just decided I wanted to be a college graduate,” she said recently. “I wanted to get my bachelor’s degree.” Finally earning that degree, she added, is “a dream come true.”
Lieberman was one of 2,064 students awarded bachelor’s degrees at UNM’s main campus on Saturday. The night before, the university granted 567 master’s degrees, 90 doctorates, 85 juris doctorates, 101 medical doctorates, 85 pharmacy doctorates, 20 graduate certificates and 15 education specialist degrees.
Meanwhile, UNM-Gallup awarded 98 associate degrees and 32 certificates; UNM-Los Alamos handed out 20 associate degrees; UNM-Taos awarded 50 associate degrees and 31 certificates; and at Valencia, 95 graduates earned associate degrees and 67 were granted certificates.
Lieberman’s quest for a college degree started back in the late 1970s when she took a few tentative classes. She stopped for a couple of reasons. One was that she was reluctant to take any hard sciences or math courses. She was also a young mother with two small children.
Then, about six years ago, she bit the bullet and decided to go ahead and get her degree. At the time, she was working on the administrative side at Sandia National Laboratories. She retired about four years ago.
Eventually, she took those dreaded biology and math classes and was pleased to learn that they weren’t as difficult as she had imagined – except for one math class at Central New Mexico Community College. “Otherwise, I did very well,” she said. Her grade point average at UNM is 4.0.
Lieberman stands by the decision she made decades ago to put off taking the more difficult classes.
“I don’t know if I would have put as much effort into math and science in the ’70s,” she said. Now she is the holder of a bachelor of liberal arts degree.
Husband Morton Lieberman said he, too, is proud. “She is about to complete her long journey to obtain her bachelor’s degree at UNM,” he said as graduation day approached. “Her quest is one of personal fulfillment, rather than the usual one of seeking employment opportunities. … I am proud, very proud. She supported me when I was working on my Ph.D. many decades ago.”
The couple’s daughter, Laura, is a graduate of UNM and son, Neal, is also a Lobo, having earned his master’s in special education there. Both travelled from the southeastern United States to be with Mom on Graduation Day and then Mother’s Day.
“I loved being a student,” Elaine Lieberman said. “It’s liberating, hard work, and yet I looked forward to going to class. I only missed one class in the last six years.
“Over the years,” she continued, “I’ve taken many non-credit classes and attended many lecture series, mainly because I have test anxiety and I didn’t want to deal with it. You’d think at my age, I’d be over it, but that hasn’t happened. I took so many courses that if they had all been for credit, I could have had a Ph.D. by now.
“Sometimes, when I walk into a classroom, I think the other students kind of look at me quizzically – they wonder if I’m the instructor.”
The graduate degrees were handed out at a Friday evening commencement ceremony featuring keynote speaker Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, eldest daughter of the late Robert and Ethel Kennedy. Townsend is also a UNM Law School graduate and former lieutenant governor of Maryland.
She read a short letter her father wrote to her shortly after President John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, when she was 12. Instead of expressing anger or retreating into his own world, RFK wrote to his oldest of 11 children to always remember the importance of kindness, responsibility and love.
Townsend also urged the graduates not to shun politics, because it can be a mighty force for change.
Saturday’s Keynote speaker was Jim Hinton, president and CEO of Presbyterian Healthcare Services and a 1981 UNM graduate.
Delivering a serious message – the difference between “ignorance and being dumb” – Hinton’s comedic delivery had the crowd laughing out loud. He seasoned his comments with hilarious references to country music lyrics, but the bottom line was for the graduates to continue learning throughout life.
Ignorance is not such a bad thing, as long as it is recognized, he said. “Ignorance is the realization that there are other things to know.”
A bachelor’s degree certainly matters, he said, “but only so much.” More important are family, friends and community. What is “winning” in life? he asked. “It isn’t any one song. It’s the whole album.”
Meanwhile, Elaine Lieberman was not the only older graduate.
- Loretta Doty has been attending UNM intermittently for 39 years.
“I interspersed my schooling with raising my family, four daughters, and helping with my grandchildren, nine boys and five girls,” she said. “It has been a long and arduous journey, fraught with financial difficulties and never-ending obstacles, but it has been entirely worth it.”
- On the other end of the scale is Verity Bornet, who began working on her degree when she was 15. She is now 19.
- And Tanya Harmount insists that her son, Forrest Scott, will also receive her degree. “I carried him through the majority of my last two semesters after getting married on June 20, 2014,” she said. Forrest, due June 8, will be a first child.
- Other graduating relatives include Jason Johnson and his wife, Amelia Vasquez-Johnson. They met in the Army National Guard during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004. He earned an associate degree in applied science and general studies, and an associate of arts degree in liberal arts. She also earned an associate degree in applied science and general studies.
- Another set of first-generation UNM graduates are the Martinez twins, Matthew and Michael Sammy, 24.
“We are complete opposites,” Matthew said a few days before graduation. “But even with our different perspectives and abilities, we worked as one another’s support system. I would not have been able to do it without him or my family’s unending support, encouragement and love.”
Their parents both work for the university; a sister is a UNM student.
“Being a UNM Lobo has been a trademark for my family and will never die, because it has brought us all together and pushed me and my brother closer to the brighter futures we have planned ahead,” Matthew Martinez said. “We will never forget our time at UNM. Once a Lobo, always a Lobo.”