Great grandma gets college degree for first time

Posted at 6:06 AM, Dec 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-12 08:06:47-05

Those who don’t attend college at a younger age understand that there’s always time to go back and get a degree. One great-grandmother took that mantra to heart when she received her bachelor’s degree at the age of 89.

Betty Reilly, who has 5 children, 12 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren, donned a cap and gown at the Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida yesterday after an 11-year academic journey, which she began when she set out to earn her General Education diploma, she told ABC News.

Reilly grew up on the Upper East Side in New York City and planned to attend The New School or Columbia University after graduating high school.

But she said she contracted Hepatitis A after eating raw clams in Times Square and was forced to drop out of high school while she recovered from the debilitating illness.

After that, she went straight into clerical work until she met her husband on Wall Street.

When Reilly was 78, a librarian suggested that she apply for a job at the local library in Sunrise, Florida, where she lives. The self-professed bookworm asked about the requirements for the job and became disappointed when she heard she would need a high school diploma.

That disappointment fueled her determination for a higher education, she said.

Reilly initially set out to get her GED to meet the requirements for the librarian position, but her plans changed when a teacher in a prep class told her that an essay she wrote was “publishable.”

“That’s all I had to hear,” she said.

Reilly had limited funds to pay for college and didn’t have a car, so she applied for a federal Pell Grant, which took care of most of the tuition, books and fees, and took an hour-long bus ride to class.

When she arrived at Broward Community College in Davie, Florida in 2007, she admitted she was “shy” at first and received some “odd” stares from her classmates.

“There were all these young, bright kids who know the technology,” she said. “All I could do [on a computer] was get my email and get my horoscope.”

“Twice, I was on eBay,” she added.

After receiving her associate’s degree, Reilly attended the FAU campus in Davie, Florida to go for her bachelor’s degree in English Literature.

Reilly did her happy dance, the “Whip and Nae Nae,” as she walked across the stage to receive her diploma yesterday, she said.

Her 59-year-old daughter, Kathy Johnson, said the family was “overwhelmed” with joy for her.

“She’s wanted it for a long time,” Johnson told ABC News. “Watching her do her happy dance brought joy to every member of my family, and it was the proudest moment for all of us.”

Reilly is “one of the oldest” students to graduate from FAU with a bachelor’s degree, the school’s chief press officer, Lisa Metcalf, told ABC News.

“The whole audience started chanting [her name] because they were so excited for her," she said.

Reilly plans to apply for a scholarship for a master’s degree, but her professors, with whom she is on a first-name basis, have invited her to sit in as a guest in their classes if she doesn’t receive one.

“Once I’m out of class, we’re friends,” she said. “Why stop now?”