South Charlotte

It's never too late to get your college degree

On Mother's Day, one south Charlotte mom of three wore a light blue cap and gown as she graduated from UNC Chapel Hill.

It was a long journey, but she finally fulfilled a dream.

Margaret Fontaine, 59, was born and raised in Charlotte with her six siblings.

After graduating from Myers Park High School in 1970, Fontaine went to UNC Charlotte for one semester, but having no idea what she wanted to major in or why she was there, she dropped out.

"I didn't feel like I had the luxury, as the oldest girl out of seven children, to continue in a university without really knowing what I wanted to do," said Fontaine, who lives in Myers Park.

She married her high school sweetheart, Ray, and shortly thereafter moved to Rhode Island where they lived for more than 20 years and raised three children: Adrienne, Mike and Nick.

Fontaine stayed busy as a mother, daughter, sister and aunt, but after many years they moved back to North Carolina in 2004 and her youngest child, now 29, left the nest.

"In the back of my mind I always regretted not getting a college degree," Fontaine said. "When our youngest went to college, I felt the empty nest and didn't feel fulfilled. I started taking classes at CPCC because I felt uninspired."

Choking back tears, Fontaine talked about starting her college journey at CPCC. She loved the diversity, the atmosphere and the classes.

However, earning her associate degree took longer than expected.

One of her sisters, Jane Pickhardt, was diagnosed with cancer. As she went through radiation treatment, she was not allowed to be around her family and Fontaine lightened her course load to help care for Pickhardt's seven children.

But in the spring of 2009, Fontaine walked across the stage.

"My whole family was there," Fontaine said, her voice full of love. "Even my parents, who are in their mid-80s, came to see their daughter get her degree. They were very proud."

With the taste of what education could bring, Fontaine wanted to go on. She decided to apply to UNC Charlotte, but her husband encouraged her to shoot for the stars. Fontaine's daughter and father had graduated from UNC, and her husband knew what it meant to her.

"I remember when I checked my application status online and it said accepted, I couldn't believe it," she said. "I jumped up and started screaming. I was so excited."

The Fontaines knew it would bring some challenges, especially with the distance, but their initial worries were eased in an unusual way. Their Charlotte condo was flooded and forced them to move out for almost four months.

"Instead of going to Chapel Hill by myself, my husband came with me and we got an apartment there," Fontaine said. "We were able to start my back-to-college life together and Ray could work out of the apartment."

Once Ray, who owns a sales company, was able to move back into the condo, the couple commuted to see each other.

Now, two years later, Fontaine graduated as a communication studies major with a focus on interpersonal organizational communication.

"I just had my first job interview yesterday," Fontaine said proudly on April 8.

During her two years at UNC, Fontaine has taken advantage of the college experience. She has gone to several on-campus performances, attended a Duke vs. UNC men's basketball game, had dinner at a friend's sorority house, attended study groups at the Student Union and enjoyed walking around campus. "Walking around campus recently, I thought of my first day there with my husband and just cried," Fontaine said. "I couldn't believe this was actually mine. That this was going to be for me. It was fulfilling a dream."

Fontaine's family couldn't be prouder. Pickhardt, 49, said they are planning a party for her at Hawthorne's Pizza in honor of her graduation with at least 30 family members present.

"Despite her schedule, she's tried to be at every family event for the last two years," Pickhardt said. "You can't imagine how proud we are of our sister. She is such a great example for my own seven children to never give up on your dreams and that is it never too late."

"It's just been an amazing experience," Fontaine said. "What I've gotten out of it is something that will stay with me forever. Not only the knowledge, but the experience and finally understanding what I'd missed by not getting a college degree earlier."