A new graduate at 76, when college means more ‘and sticks with you’

Shella Hollowell On Older College Students

Shella Hollowell talks about being an older student in college. At 76, she graduated from UNC Charlotte nearly 60 years after starting her pursuit of a college diploma.
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Shella Hollowell talks about being an older student in college. At 76, she graduated from UNC Charlotte nearly 60 years after starting her pursuit of a college diploma.

Someone on UNC Charlotte’s faculty should use Shella Hollowell of Locust for a study on perseverance.

On Saturday, Hollowell, one of the university’s newest graduates, stood in black cap and gown at fall commencement exercises with hundreds of fresh-faced degree holders dreaming about what next their futures would bring.

Yet Hollowell has already lived much of her life.

She’s 76 and took classes at six colleges over 56 of those years to meet the requirements of her newly bestowed history degree.

More than a half century ago, she promised her father that this Saturday would come. Jake Strother grew up poor in Kinston in eastern North Carolina and worked four jobs during the Depression to pay for him to attend UNC Chapel Hill.

“So education was always in the forefront of conversations in our house – my sister and I were indoctrinated,” Hollowell said. “I don’t know if he believed me when I told him I’d get a degree. He died when he was 70.

“My goodness, I wish he was here to see this.”

No doubt, Jake Strother, editor of the Kinston Free Press for 40 years, would have been proud of his daughter. But Hollowell felt the pride of many people Saturday, including her four children and their spouses, her sister, nine grandchildren and Bill Hollowell, her husband of 56 years.

“We’re all real proud of her,” said Bill Hollowell, 77, a retired salesman. “She absolutely wouldn’t give up. She wouldn’t tell you this, but she’s in every honors society there is – and she’s got like a 3.8 grade point average.”

“I’m only in four,” Shella said, overhearing. “My husband brags – I don’t like for him to brag.”

“OK, four,” Bill said. “She’s got so many (honors society) ribbons I tell her ‘you look like a NASCAR driver.’ 

A class a semester

Many in her graduation entourage are the reason it took her so long to get her degree.

Hollowell started her journey at St. Mary’s College in Raleigh, but found the place “too strict” and left after a year.

She took a secretarial course in Raleigh and returned to Kinston to marry Bill, a junior at East Carolina University.

While Bill finished his senior year, Shella (named for the grandmother she never knew) began her career as a medical transcriptionist at ECU’s medical school. Bill started teaching high school and left to work sales for Gulf Oil, then 3M Company. That began their nomadic lives that would have stopped anybody from pursuing a college degree.

He was first assigned to Raleigh, where they lived for five years and started their family.

“Every few years, Bill kept getting assigned to new places,” she said. They lived in Tampa, Fla., in Charlotte for 11 years and in 1997 to Jacksonville, Fla., where she worked in medical transcriptions at the Mayo Clinic while Bill and a son-in-law started a dry cleaning business.

Eventually, they closed the business and the Hollowells returned to Charlotte. In that span, Shella enrolled in courses – one a semester – at East Carolina, Central Piedmont Community College, the University of South Florida, USF-St. Petersburg campus and finally a second tour at UNCC.

“I wanted something to keep my mind alive,” Shella said. “I have a thirst for learning and when you’re shut up with young children all day, you can lose your train of thought – lose your mind. So I’d get a baby sitter and go take a class at night.

“That diversion kept me alive. I met such interesting people.”

‘When it means more’

She started as an English major. But at USF she took southern history classes that so “mesmerized” her “I didn’t want them to end.”

Her focus turned to history of the South and building of the West and some European history.

“I’ve had wonderful history professors along the way,” Hollowell said.

The past week, two of her grandchildren graduated from college. Thursday, she took her last last final exam – in deductive logic to meet a math requirement, a course she purely dreaded.

On her graduation day, she had a message for older college students:

“Everything is more interesting,” she said. “Everything stays with you. You absolutely hang onto everything the professors say. I think kids ought to go to the Army or work for a while and then go to college – when it means more.”

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