A Degree a Half Century in the Making
For Sylvia Hamilton, May 18, 2018, offered a moment she’d pursued for 56 years.
As the graduate prepared to cross the stage at Commencement, she could not help but reflect on the journey she undertook to get there: more than a dozen schools, four children, one career, and countless forks in the road along the way.
At 83 years old, the Nevada City resident is one of the oldest graduates to be awarded a degree in the University’s 130-year history. In spirit, however, she is every bit as youthful as her fellow grads. The distance learning student took her first steps onto campus while wearing a cap and gown and eagerly strolled to the staging field to meet her sociology classmates face to face, clustering together for photos and giddy laughter.
“I’m just elated,” she gushed. “Words can’t really describe it. It was a challenge, and it just feels good that I was able to meet it.
Defying expectations, Hamilton also became the first generation in her family to graduate from a four-year university.
“My parents, only one of them got as far as eighth grade and one of them as far as sixth,” she recalled. “College was never a word in our family. It didn’t mean anything. I was going to grow up, get married, have kids—that was it.”
She met her husband, Wally, in 1954, and they were engaged a week later. During his career in the US Air Force, he pursued further education to support his promotions and subsequently earned a bachelor’s degree and then his master’s.
“The more he was into that, the more I wanted to do it,” Hamilton said.
But at the time, she was busy raising their children and taking care of the household. In 1962, she enrolled at a community college, taking classes while their children were also at school. It was a pattern she would continue for years. But opportunities were sporadic, as the Hamiltons’ Air Force relocations across the country—at least 17, by her count—seldom took them to places offering higher education.
In 1979, Wally accepted a position at Beale Air Force Base and Hamilton was able to resume classes at nearby Yuba College and then Sacramento State. But her stop-start pattern persisted when Wally retired and their finances could no longer afford tuition. She set her studies aside once again, even though she had nearly everything she needed for a degree in liberal studies—including a spot as a student teacher.
“But I couldn’t do it. It was impossible at that point,” she said, a tinge of resignation still lingering in her voice.
For the next 30 years, the couple made a happy living in real estate. They adventured around the country and Hamilton earned her pilot’s license, a lifelong goal. And yet, the degree that never was continued nagging at her mind.
“The more I was away from it and the possibility, the more I wanted to do it,” she said. “My husband just encouraged and encouraged me. And he said, ‘Why don’t you do it online?’”
Hamilton discovered Chico State offers a bachelor’s in sociology online degree completion program. After enrolling in spring 2016, she gave it her all, taking summer session and up to five courses once —all online—and spending much of her days seated at her home computer. Yet, she never felt like she was missing out on the University experience.
“You go on camera so you are part of the class,” she said. “You can see and hear the lecture. You can talk just like you are in class.”
The only difference, she found, was she had significantly more life experience than her classmates.
“To learn that stuff in class, it was the first time many students had ever heard it and I was ‘been there, done that,’” Hamilton said.
For example, while studying presidents in a history course, she had actually voted for several of them decades earlier. And during her “Race and Ethnicity” course, one of the first discussions was on Montgomery, Alabama—the significant Civil Rights era-site also one of her and Wallace’s first relocations with the Air Force. They lived there three separate times during the height of the Civil Rights movement, watching the national climate on race evolve in a way very different from their hometown of Ventura.
But her academic success required humility, too, she said. With the same fortitude and bravery it took to earn her pilot’s license, she turned to her daughter when she needed help with math and sought support from her Chico State classmates and faculty on other subjects.
“Everyone there is super understanding,” she said. “They were just willing to do anything to answer my questions.”
As graduation drew near, she felt every bit the college graduate. She donated $20.18 as part of the Class of 2018 gift, and when it came time to planning her attendance at the ceremony—a milestone she was determined to experience—the octogenarian decided driving around an unfamiliar town for the nighttime event was not ideal.
“I said, ‘I have a crazy idea,’” Hamilton recalled, with a twinkle in her eye. “I asked my husband, ‘What would you think about getting a limousine to drive us up there?”
The wild idea was worth it. She, her husband, and two daughters sipped champagne in a stretch limousine on the trek to Chico State, celebrating the occasion with the frills they knew it deserved. Later that evening, as she walked off the stage, she held her diploma cover high above her head and grinned in the direction of her family, pausing briefly for a few faculty hugs and handshakes.
After tassels were moved to the left and graduates began to clear the stadium, Hamilton crossed to where her husband was sitting. Wally stood, a smile stretching ear to ear, and leaned in for a lingering embrace. Her daughters swept in next for hugs and to drape leis around their mother’s neck.
Festivities continued into the following day, with Hamilton’s granddaughter earning a nursing degree from Sacramento State and her daughter celebrating the completion of a certificate in medical coding—adding to a family legacy of educated women.
“I would like to encourage others who think they are too old to do this to go do it!” Hamilton said. “It will be one of the best things they can achieve.”
As Hamilton begins pondering her next step, she admits she has teased her husband and children about starting a master’s degree program. Her experience at Chico State fanned the flames of her love of learning.
“No one in my family knows this—I’m kind of missing studying,” she said with a hearty laugh. “I don’t know how I can possibly say that. I’m just going to revel in it.”