Great-grandmother graduates from college at 78: ‘Follow your dreams’

"If I could have done cartwheels across the stage, I would have," Vivian Cunningham said.

A great-grandmother is making headlines for graduating from an Alabama university at the age of 78.

Vivian Cunningham received her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies at Samford University’s commencement ceremony over the weekend. She told Today, “If I could have done cartwheels across the stage, I would have.”
Vivian Cunningham / Twitter via Stephanie Douglas Samford University

The former seamstress reportedly spent six years working toward her degree. She moved to Birmingham from Atlanta as a single mother of two in the late 1960s, where she spent 29 years working a custodial job at the Alabama Power Company.

She ultimately worked her way up to managing the mailroom. Cunningham also took advantage of the company’s tuition reimbursement program. After she retired in 1992, she continued taking classes and earning course credits from several colleges in the Birmingham area.

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Cunningham earned her associate degree in paralegal studies from Virginia College and later enrolled in night classes at Samford University. The COVID pandemic would force her to switch to remote learning, which she described as being “kind of hectic.”

“I didn’t know too much about technology, so I had to have my daughter help me with that to learn to do it virtually,” she recalled to Today.

Cunningham admits there were moments when she wanted to give up but, per PEOPLE, her daughter Tarra Barnes, son Donald Cunningham and son-in-law, retired Army Col. Rob Barnes, kept her motivated.

“We’re so elated. She set a goal, and it took her a little journey to get there, but she finished it. She really has motivated our family,” said Tarra.

Cunningham even inspired her daughter to return to school and earn a Ph.D at North Carolina A&T.

“Education is a big deal in our family,” Tarra told Today.

“My friends have called and told me that it has motivated them,” Cunningham added. “And some of the young ones in my family, too. They said if I can do it, they can do it.”

Cunningham is now considering pursuing a master’s degree. 

“I say follow your dreams, don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done, keep pushing and keep God in the plan,” she said.

“I love to read to get more knowledge,” she added. “I really love learning.”

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In related news, an Italian man made headlines last summer when he became the oldest person in the country to earn a college degree at age 96.

Giuseppe Paterno made history when he graduated from the University of Palermo last year with a degree in history and philosophy, Reuters reported.

“I am a normal person, like many others. In terms of age, I have surpassed all the others but I didn’t do it for this,” he told the outlet after graduating at the top of his class on July 29. “I said, ‘That’s it, now or never,’ and so in 2017, I decided to enroll.”

“I understood that it was a little late to get a three-year degree but I said to myself, ‘Let’s see if I can do it,'” he added.

“My project for the future is to devote myself to writing; I want to revisit all the texts I didn’t have a chance to explore further. This is my goal,” he explained. “Knowledge is like a suitcase that I carry with me, it is a treasure.”

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