At 53, a College Degree — and a New Lease on Life

Lauren Parda grew up in Greenfield, Mass., married at 19, and raised three children while working in the admissions office of Northfield Mount Hermon School. “The school was an eye-opener,” she said, “because I started to see how people could achieve things with education.”

Parda’s mentor, the dean of enrollment, nudged her to take college courses. She never did— until her marriage of 28 years dissolved and she was on her own. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it.  My kids said, ‘C’mon mom. We all went to college. Why don’t you try it? Take a couple classes at night.’”

Soon she was joining her youngest son, Jonathan, for homework sessions in their shared apartment. Both were taking classes at Greenfield Community College (GCC). Northfield Mount Hermon’s employee benefits covered her tuition.

“Every single class I took at GCC made me feel that the whole world was opening up,” Parda reflected. “I didn’t know what art history was. There were words I never heard. I took a class on death and dying, and I learned to understand the stages people go through when they pass away. I thought, ‘Wow!’ I had never heard of this stuff. I never knew there was anything outside the little bubble I grew up in. As a first-generation college student, I never had that exposure before.”

Emboldened, she applied to the Frances Perkins Program at Mount Holyoke College. It provides financial support for students of nontraditional age who have yet to earn a college degree.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Parda

When she got accepted, her former brother-in-law suggested she apply for scholarships from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

“I decided to quit my job even though I had no money. It was the boldest move of my life! It enabled me to push through Mount Holyoke as quickly as possible, do as well as I could, and then get back out there in the workforce.”

A combination of scholarships and loans from the Community Foundation helped pay for tuition, rent, and living expenses. Yet, for short periods, she had to lean on public food and fuel assistance. “It was a tough few years,” she said.

At age 53, after two and a half years of study, Parda (pictured) graduated magna cum laude from Mount Holyoke with a double major in sociology and art history.

“I worked so hard to show that I had the brains and determination to earn a degree and show I was worthy of the scholarships and loans,” she said. “I think I did that.”

Fast-forward eight years.  Parda has come full circle.

She’s now the senior development officer at the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, where she encourages donors to support student scholarships and nonprofit organizations.

“People mentoring me, the schools believing in me, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts investing in me…they all opened up this path for me. I couldn’t have done it without all that help.”

She added, “What I went through taught me empathy. I can give back by working at a community foundation now — and by believing in the people and the communities we serve.”