Ethel Yarbrough seemed to have everything in her life headed in the right direction. After she earned an associate degree, Ethel was set to start a bachelor’s degree program when her husband, Clifton, was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“It was touch and go until this year ,” she said. “We found out in December 2015, right after I graduated from College of the Ouachitas with my associate degree. They did the first biopsy in January and weren’t sure that it was cancer. They had to wait a month until they could do the second one, so it was February when he got his diagnosis. He’s in remission and doing much better now. It’s a relief.”
Somehow, Ethel didn’t miss a beat. Once Clifton was receiving treatments, she enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts in Sociology online program at Arkansas State University in May 2016.
We should also mention that Ethel is a 63-year-old retiree.
“Rather than let go of my dream and end it at that point, I searched the internet and found that Arkansas State University offered classes that go for seven weeks within a semester,” she said. “I knew the private schools did, but I didn’t know about public colleges.
“When I called them up for information, they said, ‘Okay, let me take your name,’ and we just went from there. The next thing I know, I thought, ‘Well, this may work out for me. It will keep me on track while I have that mindset.’”
She hasn’t looked back since. Ethel is on pace to graduate in 2018. She hopes to walk the stage as a member of the Chancellor’s List (3.8 GPA or higher) if she can “keep her grades up.”
“I am the first person in my family to earn a college degree,” she said. “That’s another motivation for me. Even though I’m getting a degree at my age, hopefully my children or grandchildren can say, ‘Never give up. Never lose sight of the dream. Go for it — no matter what it is.’”
Ethel’s college plans were not meant to last very long. She was laid off from her job at Central Arkansas Development Council, which led to retirement. She was also teaching Bible study one night a week at her church. Her plan was to take just a few courses, like history and public speaking, but things didn’t exactly work out that way.
“Before I could get to those classes, I had to take the basics,” she said. “By the time I got through that, I was almost through the program. I thought, ‘I’ve come this far. Why not finish it?’ I just kept going.”
Ethel enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program before putting school on hold to help Clifton cope with his illness and get him to and from his many doctor appointments. Once she returned to school at A-State, the online format made things manageable for her.
“When you go to class on campus, there’s a set time you have to be there,” Ethel said. “With the online classes, I had more flexibility. I could study in between if I had to go to the doctor with Clifton. I could arrange my studies. For example, on Sunday, we’ll be gone all day. When I get back, I know I’m not going to want to study.”
She added that she enjoyed all of the courses she has already taken in the curriculum.
“I like them all, but I’ve gotten more into criminology than I thought I would,” she said. “It’s interesting. Some of the stuff you already know, but there’s not a class I don’t love. It’s a good variety. I feel like college has opened my eyes to a lot of things. When you get in there and start digging, you’re learning about what the background is. It puts a whole new perspective on it.”
Ethel got her first taste of higher education while still working full-time as a home delivery meal coordinator at the local senior center in her hometown of Malvern, Arkansas.
“While I was doing that, I was going to school at night,” she said. “When you get to be a certain age, people say, ‘Oh, you’re too old to go to school.’ I got really discouraged, and I quit.”
But there’s no stopping Ethel now.
“I was originally going to major in sociology with a minor in psychology because I wanted to do Christian counseling,” she said. “I was debating, ‘Do I want to work with children? Do I want to work with senior citizens?’ [Going back to school] gave me the opportunity to do Christian counseling.”
This time around, she turned a deaf ear to her detractors.
“My friends say, ‘Why are you doing this, Ethel? You’re already retired,’” she said. “My family has been great. I have had some times when I was discouraged and wanted to quit, but my family said, ‘Oh, mom, you have to keep going.’ They have encouraged me in my degree because that’s something I wanted for me.
“I have two daughters and five grandchildren. When my 16-year-old grandson and I make A’s in whatever class, we have to pay each other in dollars. He got A’s and B’s, but I got straight A’s. He said, ‘You owe me $45,’ but I only ended up owing him $5 because I got straight A’s.”
Learn more about the A-State online BA in Sociology program.