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Special Delivery: 89-Year-Old Receives Her Diploma During the Holidays

Joan Donovan dressed in graduation cap and gown, holding her SNHU diploma outside of her Florida home.

While “Jingle Bell Rock” played at many gatherings during the holidays, “Pomp and Circumstance” came through the speakers at one Florida home. Donning a graduation cap and gown, Joan Donovan ’22G stepped outside to accept her framed diploma, surrounded by family.

The 89-year-old completed her latest goal, a Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing, at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

“I am just thrilled,” Donovan said about the graduation celebration. “I am honored. I’m overwhelmed, and your kindness means a lot.” Balloons and cupcakes sporting SNHU colors decorated a table holding a bouquet and bag of gifts for Donovan.

“On behalf of President LeBlanc and everyone at Southern New Hampshire University, we’re so proud of you,” SNHU Assistant Vice President of Communications Lauren Keane said to Donovan. “Congratulations on earning your master’s degree.”

Gaining this credential was important to Donovan, who has a passion for learning. “I’m a goal-seeker,” she said. “And it was a goal, and I reached it. It’s a dream come true, really.”

Going to College: ‘Why Not?’

Donovan’s educational journey was atypical from the beginning. She said she started first grade at four and a half years old and was a high school graduate by 16.

Joan Donovan dressed in graduation cap and gown, holding her SNHU diploma while surrounded by 5 family members.“When I graduated from high school, I was told there was no money in the family to send me to college.” But, characterized by her mom as “brilliant,” Donovan didn’t want her time in school to end. So she returned to her high school to take post-graduate classes.

Then she got married and started a family, and her formal education fell by the wayside.

But after her six children grew up and moved away, Donovan rekindled her dream of being a college student. “I said, ‘why not?’ I’ll try it. I was terrified, but I loved it,” she said. “I got up in the morning just anxious to get to school.” She soon became a college graduate with an associate degree from a community college.

But she didn’t stop there. At 84 years old, she completed her bachelor’s degree at a 4-year college.

“Then I said, ‘why not keep going?’” according to Donovan. She knew she wanted to study creative writing, but her school lacked the flexibility she needed. The scheduled evening classes just didn’t work for her.

So she turned to Google and discovered SNHU, the college her granddaughter attended, offered an online master's in creative writing program. With that, she enrolled.

Persevering to Tell Her Story

Donovan, a military spouse and breast cancer survivor, is now using her creative writing degree to write an autobiography about her life. She said she's drawing from her experiences in SNHU's capstone course along the way.

Joan Donovan’s SNHU diploma on a table with flowers, a bag with an SNHU logo and balloons.Dr. Will Napier, Donovan's capstone instructor, said he felt fortunate to read her milestones and final portfolio. He also applauded her for her persistence through the program. Even as a category four hurricane made its way through their state, she continued to write and inspire others in her class.

"Throughout the ordeal, Joan continued to produce text that demonstrated intellect, creativity and, above all else, humor," Napier said. "With all that was going on during the term, there was always time and space for levity, and Joan was quick to share the good within the world to remind us all why we choose to be creative and why we choose to share a story with others."

Academic advisor Kayla Morrison '22G also got to know Donovan well as they developed a working relationship. Although Donovan is now a graduate and no longer enrolled in courses, Morrison remains invested in her success.

"For Joan, I know (college) was a stepping stone toward publishing her own autobiography," she said. "I can't wait to see her book published someday."

‘Learn Everything You Can Every Day’

As the eldest of SNHU’s 17,700 graduates in 2022, Donovan wants to show people it’s never too late to keep learning. "That is my purpose,” she said.

Joan Donovan dressed in graduation cap and gown, holding her SNHU diploma.Now her story has reached thousands. Donovan was featured on Good Morning America and ABC World News Tonight, where she shared she is working on a rom-com novel as well as her autobiography.

"I waited 60 years to fulfill my dream. So I hope others don't have to wait that long," she said.

And she said learning can take all kinds of forms — from going to college to reading the newspaper. “Just learn everything you can every day,” she said.

Her emphasis on education is the legacy she is building for her family. In addition to her granddaughter with an SNHU degree, Donovan has another with a doctorate. “I have 'brilliant' grandchildren and great-grandchildren," she said, harkening back to the same language her mom used to describe her.

Donovan achieved her educational goals with the help of those around her. It was her family and friends, as well as peers and SNHU instructors and staff like Napier and Morrison, who supported her throughout her journey.

"I am always so proud to see my students graduate," Morrison said. "I was a student at SNHU myself, so I understand the time and dedication it takes to get to graduation."

While Donovan said her college journey took a little longer than most, she did it — and with a 3.8 GPA.

“I was afraid to try college,” she said. “So I say, ‘try things.’ If you fail, try it again ... but just keep trying.”

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU online program that can best help you meet your goals.

Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 ’22G is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.