When Marlan A. Henderson began her college journey, she couldn’t have imagined that it would take more than 50 years to earn her bachelor’s degree.
So when she receives her B.S. in sociology at Chartway Arena on Dec. 16 during Old Dominion University’s 139th Commencement Exercises, it will be the fulfillment of a lifelong goal.
“This is a dream come true for me,” said Henderson, who at age 71 is probably the oldest person in this semester’s graduating class.
Henderson grew up in Portsmouth. After graduating from I.C. Norcom High School, she enrolled at Norfolk State University in 1970 to pursue a sociology degree. But she had to drop out for financial reasons a little shy of completing her education.
She then moved to Washington, D.C., and worked in administrative positions for the U.S. Government at various agencies.
“This is a dream come true for me.” - Marlan A. Henderson
Henderson moved back to Portsmouth, where she transitioned into working retail sales, was briefly married and had her only child, daughter Lessie, who’s also an ODU alum and works as a residential outreach coordinator for goDCgo in Washington.
But the lack of a degree continued to nag at her.
“I was feeling a void about not having a college degree,” she said. “It was holding me back from positions I wanted. That kept registering in the back of my mind.
“I didn’t want to be on my death bed saying, ‘I never graduated from college.’”
She resumed her education in 2017 at Tidewater Community College and earned her associate degree in 2018. She then enrolled at ODU. She took classes through ODUGlobal and liked the flexibility online classes provided but would come to campus to use the library.
“When I went to the library, most of the students didn’t think I was a student,” she said.
Henderson, who moved to Maryland in 2022 to be closer to her daughter, admitted that returning to school “was quite a challenge.” She said sometimes she’d be up until 2 or 3 in the morning working on class assignments.
“At first I was hesitant at going back at such a late age,” she added. “My daughter was the one who actually gave me the courage to come back.”
Elaine Hardin, director of intake and student success for ODUGlobal, was one of Henderson’s academic advisors.
“I thoroughly enjoyed working with Marlan and assisting her with achieving her goal of an undergraduate degree,” Hardin said. “I admire her tenacity for life, and her eagerness to accomplish the completion of the sociology major, often starting and stopping along the way, taking courses when she could. Although we never met in person, connecting with her as I do many students ‘at a distance,’ our lives intertwined and we became a family. I am so proud of her for not giving up on her dream of having her bachelor's degree.”
“She was a big inspiration for me,” said Henderson of Hardin, especially when she was taking difficult classes. “She really gave me the encouragement not to give up.
“She was my guardian angel.”
Henderson feels a real sense of accomplishment at having earned a degree, particularly one from ODU.
“It’s a college I could say I’m proud to be an alumna of,” she said.
And she wants others to draw confidence from her example and follow in her shoes.
“I hope my story, my experience inspires other senior citizens who have faced obstacles to getting a degree,” Henderson said. “It can be done if you have the motivation and ambition.”