At GRCC’s commencement, Pamela Syfert wore a mortarboard emblazoned with these words: “1987 – 2023. Took me 36 years to get my degree.”
Yes, there’s a story there, one that the gregarious Syfert can laugh about now as she tells it, although there were also a few tears along the way.
She graduated from Wyoming High School in 1986 and a week later moved out on her own. She doesn’t dwell on the details, but she said the move was for the best. And she went to work, landing a full-time job at Sysco Frost Pack.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college,” she said simply.
But she saved her money, and in the fall of 1987, she was able to take two classes at what was then Grand Rapids Junior College.
“I was living on my own; I was working, and it was pay as you go,” she recalled with a hearty laugh. “I think I was making four or five bucks an hour back then.”
She’s not sure almost four decades later what those two classes were, although she thinks one of them was English 101.
“I didn’t do well,” she said. More laughter. “In fact, I had to take it over and failed it again, and then I passed it the third time. I don’t give up.”
After those two classes, she took a five-year break.
“Life happens,” she said. “You have to work; cars break down — yeah.”
But in the early ‘90s, she got on a roll: two classes in 1992, one in the summer of 1993 and three more that fall.
Things were looking good. But, she said, more life came her way.
“I got married a couple of times, had a son, my parents died, different jobs, life interfered,” she said.
Still, GRCC continued to tug at her.
“I knew I wanted to go back,” she said. “I wanted to complete that degree. But I really didn’t see a way to get there, and, as the years went by, it got harder and harder to figure out how I could finish what I’d started.”
When COVID hit, she avoided the layoffs that were happening in her industry and at her company at the time, Haviland Enterprises.
“I wanted to work,” she said. “And I worked continuously all through COVID.”
And then one day, the HR people at Haviland sent a message out to their employees about a state program called Futures for Frontliners, a scholarship program for Michiganders without college degrees who worked in essential industries during the spring 2020 shutdown.
Even now there’s a hint of disbelief in her voice as she remembers first hearing about the program.
“I remember thinking, ‘the government will pay for you to get your associate degree?’” she said. “It seemed too good to be true.”
While Futures for Frontliners is no longer available, another state program, Michigan Reconnect, covers the cost of in-district tuition for residents 25 and older who do not have a college degree.
With the financial burden of tuition lifted, Syfert dove headfirst back into an online pool of GRCC offerings, taking classes continuously since the fall of 2021 at the rate of two to three per semester.
She credits GRCC professors and staff for getting her reacclimated to being a student after 28 years between classes.
“It’s not as easy when you’re older,” she said. “You forget a lot more when you’re older. But the advisors I have had have been so good. And the teachers, too. Online is a different experience for me, and the professors have helped me every step of the way.”
Now, she’s in the last weeks of two classes that are part of the 2023 summer session, and when she’s done with them, she’ll be an official GRCC graduate.
She laughed as she recalled asking GRCC staff members if she’d be allowed to be part of the April graduation ceremony.
“They said I could walk in April,” she said. “I wanted to make sure it was OK. When they said yes, I couldn’t wait.”
But on a path that had begun in 1987, the final leg provided one more challenge for Syfert.
There was an accident on U.S. 131 on graduation day, and traffic was backed up for miles. She and her husband, a Grand Valley State University professor, sat helplessly on the highway as the clock continued to tick. Finally, traffic cleared, and Syfert walked in right before the ceremony was starting.
“I just started bawling,” she said. “Not only because I made it on time, but the culmination of all those years and not giving up finally came to fruition.”
Her 36-year journey had reached the finish line on her time. From 1987 to 2023. From high school graduate to GRCC graduate. Right on time.
This story was reported by Phil de Haan.