May 10, 2006

Grandmother realizes dream, finishes her degree

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Pamela Irvin went from cheerleading her high school teams to becoming a wife and mothering her children in the space of only a few years' time. But she never gave up on her dream of earning a college degree.

A speech communication major with an intercultural specialization, Irvin will graduate with honors this weekend when thousands of students celebrate commencement ceremonies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Her life and dogged pursuit of a degree has been filled with uncertainty and accomplishment, frustration and elation. But she's apt to refer to the whole thing as "a great adventure."

Completing her degree is many things to Irvin, who watched her two children graduate from college (including one from SIUC) and the birth of four grandchildren before earning her own degree. She's enjoying her graduation victory.

"It's the fulfillment of a dream I've had since I was a kid," Irvin said. "It's also a marker in that I always wondered if I could do it and if I could do it well.

"I have, and it blows me away," she said.

But earning her degree also is an affirmation of her deep religious faith, which she credits with her accomplishments.

"Graduating is mostly another way to honor the Lord I serve, because I didn't do this on my own," she said.

For Irvin, a native of Indiana who graduated from high school in Mount Vernon, Ill., putting her family ahead of her own education was a natural approach and one she does not regret. Now armed with a bachelor's degree, she is looking forward to the possibilities, including pursuing a master's degree or working as a substitute teacher, the latter being a vocation worthy of great respect in her mind.

"As a substitute, you're the bridge," she said. "It's quite a challenge if you decide you're not there just to babysit. It's an opportunity to help."

Education has been a big part of Irvin's life, starting with her marriage to her husband, Terry, a physical education teacher in Dongola. Looking back, Irvin said the two were very young when they married in 1972, just a few months after she graduated from high school.

"I just fell in love," she said of her marriage to Terry, who graduated in 1969 and joined the U.S. Air Force after high school.

During their days with the military, the couple lived in Nevada. It was there that Irvin said she became a Christian, refocusing her life on those principles.

"That really became the center of who I am," she said.

The couple's son, Aaron, was born in 1974, the same year Terry got out of the military, and their daughter, Libby, in 1976. The young family moved to Missouri where Terry went to college at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, earning his degree in religious education. The couple then lived apart while Terry pursued a master's degree in another town in 1981, the same year both kids were old enough to attend school. Pamela took the empty-nest opportunity to pursue her education, enrolling at SBU with an eye toward studying kinesiology.

"The day my kids both got on the school bus I literally walked down the road and went to college," Irvin said.

She attended for a year, getting 30 credit hours under her belt. But the family's plans changed when finances forced them to abandon their studies and go back to work in Southern Illinois.

The couple worked a variety of jobs during the next few years, including as teacher aides, milk delivery service, at banks and at churches. In 2000, Terry attended SIUC to earn his teaching certificate and got the job teaching in Dongola. Pamela also began working as a teacher's aide in Dongola but was laid off because of budget cuts a year later.

It was then she found herself at a crossroads and she prayed for guidance for her next move.

"My husband just said to me, ‘don't worry about it. This is your time. You're going back to school,'" Irvin said.

But she also found her earlier educational goals, which included earning advanced degrees in kinesiology, had changed.

"I had a different point of view and I wanted a degree that really included all my life experience," she said. "Some people go to college to expand their experience. I'd done life, and I wanted something that would fit it all together."

Irvin worked with SIUC counselors to pick her major. Speech communication, with the intercultural specialization, intrigued her because of her faith.

"It's a very people-oriented approach," she said. "God looks on the inside of a person and the condition of their heart."

She started classes at SIUC in fall 2002 and became a top student. In addition to recently winning the speech communication department's top honor, the Paul Hibbs award, faculty selected her work for a Spotlight Performance at the Kleinau Theatre in fall 2004. She made the dean's list seven semesters, was a nominee for Student Employee of the Year and served as a peer facilitator and academic coach in the Supplemental Instruction Program, among other activities.

Nathan Stucky, chairman of the speech communication department, said Irvin has been highly successful academically and extremely active in the department's extracurricular activities, such as its chapter of the National Communication Association.

"She's also been a sort of informal mentor to other undergraduates, partly because she has a little more life experience than them," Stucky said. "Every professor I talked to said they were thrilled to have her in class."

Irvin will celebrate with a family gathering this weekend at their Carbondale home. She is resisting the urge to plan and organize the entire affair, as she is used to doing for family events.

"I've decided I'm just going to relax and really thank my family for helping me," she said.

Promoting excellence in undergraduate academics is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Pamela Irvin

Pamela Irvin
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