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Phoenix Forward magazine

To Mattie Lee, no one’s ever too old to learn

Mattie Lee

When you’ve got brains, use them — no matter your age. That’s the wisdom Mattie Lee, 78, says she gained while attending the University of Phoenix Nashville Campus. She hopes that will inspire members of all generations to pursue their college dreams.

“My motto is: ‘You’re never too old to learn,’” says Lee, who graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Health Administration with a concentration in Health Management. “Attending school revived my youthfulness,” she adds in her Southern drawl.

The retired certified nursing assistant (CNA) got the idea to go for her college degree in 2007. Then 73, Lee says she sat on her porch contemplating her future. She’d only taken a three-month CNA course after high school because she fell in love and decided to marry young and start a family.

She worked for 27 years caring for patients at Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute and raised four children. When both of her parents became seriously ill, she took care of them until they died.

My motto is:
‘You’re never too old to learn.’

With no one left to care for, Lee says she decided, “It’s time for me to do something for myself. And my daughter, Gloria [Conley], inspired me, too.”

Lee, who lives with Conley, says she overheard her daughter on the phone with a University representative who’d responded to Conley’s request for information about an undergraduate business degree. Her curiosity piqued, Lee asked about nursing programs, getting details about the health administration degree. That suited her interests perfectly, she says, and her daughter agreed.

“Let’s make history together, Mama. I’ll help you,” Conley told Lee. By January 2008, mother and daughter had enrolled in their respective programs and commuted together to their first campus-based classes.

Lee says she initially was concerned about being able to relate to younger students, but Conley says her mother’s classmates eventually sought her advice on learning team assignments because of her past profession. Lee learned how to use the Internet and email for schoolwork and never missed a class.

“I really think she’s amazing,” Conley says about her mother’s educational achievements, noting that Lee isn’t one to expect accolades for doing something she always wanted to do. Lee even kept up with her studies, with Conley’s encouragement, despite the 2011 death of one of her two sons.

Last May, Lee’s efforts paid off when she and Conley graduated. Lee got her health administration degree, while her daughter, who’d completed her undergraduate degree in 2010, earned her MBA with a concentration in Global Management.

“When they called my name, I just said, ‘Thank God. I made it! I reached my goal,” says Lee, who envisions starting an assisted-living facility. “Maybe I’ll just inspire others to go back to school — the young, the middle-aged or the older folks.”

She already has. “There were many nights I wanted to give up,” Conley says. “My mother was always my inspiration.”

 

Update from the editors:

Mattie Lee passed away on January 14, 2013. Her enthusiasm and academic achievement will inspire others to pursue their dreams — no matter their age or the challenges life throws their way.

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