The French love a celebration; yet, university students receive their degree through the mail. However in the U.S.A., graduation is a rights of passage, a moment in time to be marked by celebration. And it should be!

The graduate with proud parents & sis

The graduate with proud parents & sis

We danced in the streets when my oldest niece walked last Saturday. Family scattered across the Midwest applauded her efforts. She not only received her B.S. of Science degree from University of Wisconsin- Stout, but she graduated with Cum Laude Honors. (G.P.A. of at least 3.5)

School was more difficult for Marie. Like for me, math was a struggle, but she is gifted in people skills. She lights up a room with her smile, can converse with a recluse and bring laughter to the lips of dour faced octogenarian. Marie has a knack of making older people feel appreciated. Not everyone is capable of working with senior citizens, as Marie instinctively knows, “The elderly love people that are fun, entertaining, creative; someone that can make them feel young and capable of doing things.”

“It all started when I was a child, going to work with my mom, who was a recreational therapist in care centers. I also always loved hanging out with my 3 grandparents. Two years ago, my roommate helped me get a job where she worked at Solomon Hill Residential Care and I fell in love with the 4 elderly residents. I knew this right away; this was my calling.”

Marie, a high-spirited, spunky gal, has her dad’s Carlson smile and charisma, and her mom’s McKinzie resiliency and sensitivity. That same perseverance that led her to throw tantrums as a toddler and run cross country as a teen, also made her determined to complete extra requirements in college and never give up when faced with obstacles.

“Every year had its own challenges. Freshman year was transitioning away from living at home. Sophomore year, Pops had a heart attack and surgery; it was impossible to concentrate on school. Junior year, I learned how to handle the death of two favorite residents, then attended summer school, working 2 jobs and living in a beat-up old house with terrible landlords. Senior year was the best year ever! Now the hardest part is leaving my roommates and best friends and the place I’ve called home the past 4 years. “

All along, Marie matured with every setback and gained a better understanding of herself.

“In college, I learned I am a good student. In high school, the classes were boring, teachers didn’t care so much and I didn’t like my subjects. At Stout, the professors CARED about me.  And I LOVED going to class, having a say in discussions, and learning what I’m passionate about. The biggest thing I learned is that it takes a special person to care for elderly.”

Last Saturday, Marie beamed as she announced, “graduation is best day of my life!” After the ceremony, the celebration ended in typical Wisconsin fashion at Pickles, a local college bar, where family and friends of the housemates toasted over Wisconsin’s finest brew.

partying in The Pickles

partying in The Pickles

Then 48 hours later, without missing a beat, the new grad faced the real world as she held her mom’s hand in the hospital while waiting for doctors to remove a grapefruit-sized tumor from her dad’s thyroid.

Next step, Marie will be saving up to go to graduate school for a master’s in Occupational Therapy. Like so many college coeds, she faces the uncertainty of a diminishing job market during economic hard times. But there will always be work for my niece. With society growing older, we need more Maries to lighten up our dark days of aging.