Pam Puricelli began her education at UMSL in 1965 but didn't complete her degree. After more than 40 years, she returned to earn a bachelor's degree in liberal studies on Dec. 17.

Pam Puricelli began her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri–St. Louis during the campus’ infancy: 1965.

She was halfway through her junior year when life happened. First there was marriage, then children and ultimately a move 1,200 miles from UMSL. Puricelli put her four-year degree on hold. For 46 years.

Despite the higher education hiatus, Puricelli managed a successful graphic design career in San Diego and St. Louis. But when her work as a graphic designer came to an unwanted pause due to layoff last year, she returned to UMSL to finish what she started nearly half a century earlier.

On Saturday (Dec. 17), the day her unemployment ran dry, Puricelli walked across a stage in Mark Twain Athletic & Fitness Center to receive her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from UMSL.

Four days later, UMSL Daily sat down with Puricelli in the Millennium Student Center to discuss her early days on campus, career, triumphant return to academia and hopes for a new beginning.

What about UMSL made you want to enroll in 1965?

It was convenient. I didn’t have to go out of town. And it was really affordable. My parents were not very (financially) supportive, so I needed to work and pay for school. I think the very first year (tuition) was something like $150 for the entire semester. It was just wonderful. It was something I could afford on my own. A lot of my friends, we all came together. All of us were pretty much in the same situation. We all had to work and we all had to pay for school ourselves. Since we all lived in south St. Louis County, we carpooled. Each one of us took one week at a time, and we were the designated driver for that week.

Why didn’t you complete your degree back then?

I went for two and a half years, so I was pretty far along. I wasn’t at all the best student in the world at that time. I’m much better now. I got engaged, we were getting married and that was more important to me. I would have been a second-semester junior. It was getting difficult to work and go to school at the same time. So I just quit. I didn’t see being married and going to school at the same time. It was a different time then. I got pregnant, I had my kids and we moved away from St. Louis.

Where’d you move?

Initially we moved to El Paso, Texas. My husband got a job there. While I was there, after my son started school, I took a couple of classes there at the University of Texas at El Paso and got very interested in graphic design. And then I was divorced. I moved to San Diego and did a two-year program in graphic design at San Diego City College. I’ve always been able to work as a graphic designer from that point forward.

What brought you back to St. Louis?

In the 80s I was working for a publisher in San Diego. The economy was bad, and they were going to close. My parents were back here and all of my family was still back here. So I returned and immediately got a position at Barnes Jewish Hospital in their marketing and communications department. Then in 2000, I was offered a position with the Catholic Health Association as manager of their design department. Within three years, they had a restructuring of their organization and my entire department was eliminated. I did my own freelance stuff from 2003 to 2005. And then was hired by Forest Park Hospital in 2005. In April of 2010 I was laid off when they closed down the entire hospital.

How did you find yourself back in a UMSL classroom?

I was invited to come to an alumni event here at the university. I had the great fortune to be introduced to Jim Richards (interim dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication). I was introduced as a former student who was interested in coming back to school. And he was so enthusiastic. He said, “We love to have students come back.” He gave me his card and told me to e-mail him, which I did. He sort of got the ball rolling for me.

You graduated with a BLS. Why not pursue a degree with more of a graphic design focus?

I would have had to take too much graphic design over. The liberal studies degree was a good option for me. I met with Marian Amies (associate professor of art). She’s the one who actually suggested the liberal arts option. She arranged for me to meet with Grace Derda, the adviser who usually works with liberal studies students. Grace was wonderful.

Did you ever visit the campus during your nearly 40-year interim between UMSL classes?

I’d flown over and seen it. My friends said, “Oh, UMSL is getting so big.” And it is. It’s just amazing to me. Because you know, when I first went to school here, the country club building was still here. That was the administrative offices. It was the library. It was the student lounge. It was the bookstore. It was all encompassed in that one building. The only new building that was built was Benton Hall. And every single class was in Benton Hall. Our history classes and all those gen ed classes and biology. All of them. There were 300 people in those classes. They were huge. There was no real cafeteria, but there were coin-operated machines that you could get food out of. When Benton Hall was built, we were thrilled. We just thought that was wonderful. It was kind of nice to be part of that. And the teachers were all excellent and wonderful teachers. They were building something. They were part of something new and exciting.

Many students start a degree program, but never finish. From your experience, is there anything you’d tell people in that situation?

I would tell people not to wait as long (to go back) as I have. Even if they have to do one class a year, if at all possible. I know it might feel like it’s going to last forever, but I think it keeps you in that kind of academic mindset, which is helpful. I worked for BJC for a long time and the Catholic Health Association. Both of them would have paid tuition. I just didn’t take advantage of that because you get to feeling like you really don’t need it. When I was laid off in 2010, I was unable to find a job because every single open position – even in graphic design – wanted a four-year degree because that’s the standard these days. That’s the requirement these days. It didn’t matter that I had a really nice portfolio, that I had a lot of experience. I didn’t have that degree.

Ryan Heinz

Ryan Heinz