Linda McZeal isn't like many people her age. While most look forward to the golden years as a time to replace long hours at an office for time to travel and spend with family, this 65-year-old Brunswick woman has done something many of her peers wouldn't consider at that age: she graduated with her bachelor's degree in health informatics from College of Coastal Georgia on May 5.
An unrealized passion birthed from years of being stuck in a bad marriage to having to practically raise her children alone, McZeal, who received an associate's degree in nursing from the same college in 1986, said enrolling in a post-secondary institution for a second time just didn't seem like a viable option in her life, considering she was forced to retire from her duties as a registered nurse due to her arthritic disability in 2011.
"Back in the day, you didn't want your kids to go through what you went through. And for my mother, she wanted me to go to school, travel, not marry or have kids and that just didn't seem realistic. But I did go to school to get an associate's degree in nursing at College of Coastal Georgia (then, Brunswick Junior College) and worked as a registered nurse for a while until I became disabled in 2011," the Crowley, La., native said.
"I never got my bachelor's. I went to Armstrong (Junior College) for a couple of months for it but I was in a bad marriage and it took about a year to get a divorce. I was also working as a registered nurse and taking care of my children so I didn't have a chance to get it."
But after nearly two years of what she considered "a miserable time in my life," McZeal visited her alma mater on a whim to see what types of programs the now four-year comprehensive institution offered, and found something right up her alley.
"Between 2011 and January 2013 was the most miserable time of my life. I went from doing so much to piddling around the house and it was just not how I wanted to spend my days," she said.
"In 2012, I went out to the college but wasn't expecting much really ... (because) if it wasn't for my disability, I wouldn't think about going back. I met the financial aid director and she talked to me and gave me the push I needed to go back to school. That was in November 2012."
With a tight deadline looming, McZeal and her family members quickly gathered all of the pertinent documents needed to enroll over the next several weeks and by January 2013, she was once again a college student.
"I took six (credit) hours and at first, it was hard. I had to relearn how to study and had to mark up my syllabus to remind me of different assignments I had. I even wrote down memos to remind me of times of when I could study. But once I got the swing of it, I loved it," McZeal reminisced.
"For me, it was important to have the right teachers to start off (my college career). My first class was with Bill Garland in Business 101 and he wanted us to introduce ourselves to the class. I was sitting in the back and was really nervous but when it was my turn, I told everybody that I was a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and a retired registered nurse.
"And no one looked at me weird or gave me strange looks. I was treated like I was the same age as the other students."
Sharing classes with students as young as 18 years old who were taking part in their high school's college preparatory program to a few who were in their 40s and 50s, McZeal said being the oldest student in the class never deterred her from participating with her classmates or made her feel as if she wasn't fit to be there.
"I enjoyed gong to class. They never patronized me, catered to me or watered anything down. It was tough with working in groups just because of differences of opinions but even then, I still enjoyed working with them. Now that I have this degree, I want to do something with it," McZeal said.
Though at times she felt discouraged, McZeal is more than assured that a career can still be forged even at a late age.
"Retirement has changed. People don't really seem like they're sitting on the porch anymore; there are nurses in their 80s and 90s still working. Maybe not critical care, but they're still sharp," she said.
"(Working) keeps you into life. When I did my internship at the hospital in medical records in December, the coding supervisor was 74 years old and said she had no plans of retiring. She inspired me to keep going; I learned a lot from her. She assured me that age isn't a factor; it's whether or not you can do the job."
Now that she has added a new notch to her laundry list of credentials, McZeal said her next project is to lose more than 100 pounds while she continues to "pray for the right job for her at the right time."
"Age is just a number. I don't want to get hung up on that. I just want to do fun things with my husband, volunteer, exercise, work on my nutrition and just live an active life," she said.z
McZeal graduated with a GPA of 3.41 and was named to a previous Dean's List during her time at Coastal.
"I'm just looking forward to a purpose everyday. I'm sure my goals will change (over the years) but for right now, I feel content. I feel like this degree was something long overdue and it's God's opening up a way that shows me there is more to life than what traditions says you can do. You can write your own story."
While she'll miss going to class, learning new things, being with her friends and even the rigorous schedule, McZeal said what she gained from attending — and receiving her bachelor's degree — goes far beyond the college's walls.
"What I've learned in life is that I'm content with what I have and I don't look for things I don't have. It was a blessing to get my bachelor's degree; a master's degree is in God's hands," she said.
"Right now, I just want to enjoy my time and working on my next goals. I will be celebrating my one-year anniversary with my husband in July and I'm looking forward to doing fun activities with him once he moves here permanently in a couple of months."
Her advice for anyone considering going back to school in their post-retirement years: "Do something that makes life meaningful. Even if you're 90-years-old using a walker or riding in a go-cart, just get out and go," she said.
"I know that life isn't guaranteed but when you can just enjoy what you're doing, even if it's going back to school, that is what matters."