Grandmother Earns Degree after 60 Years of Persistence

Posted: May 16, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

On Saturday, May 21, George Mason will hold its 38th annual Commencement at 10 a.m. in the Patriot Center. This week, the Daily Mason Gazette highlights a few of the university’s many outstanding graduates.

By Tara Laskowski

They say some things are worth waiting for. For Barbara O’Donnell, a college degree is one of those things. This 77-year-old grandmother of seven will earn her Bachelor of Individualized Studies degree at Mason after having started her college career more than 60 years ago at UCLA. O’Donnell is the oldest graduate to accept a diploma from Mason this year, and her story is one of persistence, courage, and creativity.

O’Donnell was born in Connecticut and moved all over the country during her childhood. She spent her high school years amongst palm trees, sunny skies, and celebrities in Hollywood. Her entrepreneurial mother refurbished mansions in Hollywood and rented them to many famous musicians, actors, and celebrities of the time, so O’Donnell’s life was touched a little by fame. “People I knew in high school and college went on to lucrative acting careers, but I won’t name names,” O’Donnell says with a laugh. “I’m not a name-dropper.”

After starting college at UCLA, she met her husband, Jack, at church and left school to start a family. But one afternoon in 1980 changed her life forever. On a road trip through Pennsylvania, O’Donnell and her husband got into a car accident after something fell off of a truck driving in front of them. When their car burst into flames, O’Donnell suffered many burns to her face and body, and the intense heat of the fire caused her to have a stroke. Her husband was also injured, though not as severely as she. He died two years later of heart problems unrelated to the accident.

“I needed to deal with my grief in some way,” says O’Donnell. She began using art as a form of therapy—painting, drawing, and writing about her experience and emotions. Perhaps the biggest challenge was drawing self-portraits. “The classes I took made me confront my scars, which was very difficult,” she says. “My teachers were very sympathetic and encouraging.”

In her final presentation for her capstone course, BIS 491 Senior Project Presentation, O’Donnell showed slides of some of the paintings she created after the accident. She told her own personal story and presented the research she had done on other forms of art and therapy. “The BIS program was wonderful because it allowed me to be creative and also incorporate my life experiences into my studies,” says O’Donnell, who also credits BIS academic counselor Linda Hemm with providing much guidance and support throughout her studies.

For O’Donnell, not only did painting and drawing help her with her emotional struggles, but other activities helped her physically. She took up knitting to help get her fingers moving again after the accident. Doing crossword puzzles helped sharpen her mind. “And learning the art of cosmetics gave me the confidence to go out into the world again,” she says.

O’Donnell began taking college courses at Howard Community College in Maryland. In 1995, she moved to Virginia to merge households with her family and transferred to George Mason. During her studies, she often had to undergo medical treatments that left her exhausted, but it was the loving support of her family that kept her going.

Her grandson, James—who is currently a student at Northern Virginia Community College—attended the capstone course with her as her disability assistant, making sure her hearing apparatus was working, taking additional notes along with her, and assisting her with her PowerPoint presentation. Another grandson, Tim, only 13 years old, helped O’Donnell understand computers and helped design some of her projects. Her other grandson, Andrew, helped edit the projects at her instruction. And her daughter-in-law, Mary, turned O’Donnell’s sunroom into an art studio for painting and drawing—a room that she hopes to get much use out of in the coming years.

O’Donnell will attend convocation ceremonies on May 19. After graduation, she will continue to paint, draw, knit and spend time with her family. She also hopes to go on a cruise to Alaska. “I’ve dealt with a lot of heat in my life; now I want to go somewhere cold,” she says.

Barbara O'Donnell and family
Barbara O’Donnell with grandson James,

daughter-in-law Mary, and grandson Tim.
Photo by Tara Laskowski

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