As the crowd cheered, 80-year-old Shirley Bentley walked across the stage at Southeast Missouri State University, finally achieving a goal she had put on hold decades ago. Her journey to obtain a college degree was one filled with determination, support from loved ones, and a refusal to let age be a barrier.

Bentley was just a semester shy of graduating in the 1980s when family obligations forced her to drop out. Years later, her husband's dying words inspired her to return to Southeast.

"He said, 'You work so hard. Do you think you might be able to go back to school and get that degree?'" Bentley recalled.

It wasn't until retirement that she decided to take his advice. At 78 years old, Bentley re-enrolled. Her initial math class was a struggle, and she nearly quit several times. Bentley's friend and the Dean of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, Dr. Tammy Randolph, encouraged her to persevere.

From there, Bentley's support system grew to include her advisor, the Learning Center staff who helped her overcome technological hurdles, and her grandchildren who cheered her on. One particularly special moment was sharing an online class with her freshman grandson Trevor.

"I didn't want to say anything to my grandson as I was in class, but I asked him about the class when it was over," she said.

Despite the challenges of being an older student on a modern campus, Bentley was impressed by the supportive community around her.

"Young people get a bad rap. They really do. And the ones I have met...they have been so supportive of me and helpful," she praised.

Bentley's story proves that it's never too late to pursue your dreams. Her perseverance and the caring community around her enabled her to walk across the stage, her brain sharper than ever.

Shirley Bentley with her diploma at graduation.

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