Worth the wait: Irene Garrison earns her degree from UMSL after nearly 60 years

Older white woman wearing glasses and an UMSL sweatshirt, stands, smiling against a colorful collage of photos.

Irene Garrison graduated with honors and received her bachelor’s degree in French from UMSL after working toward her college diploma for 56 years. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Irene Garrison’s father always intended for her to go to college and had been trying to save up for it, but passed away before he could make that dream come true. So Garrison, a determined woman, decided to put herself through school – one class at a time, over nearly 60 years.

With patience and immense tenacity, Garrison, who started college at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 1966, graduated last month with honors with a bachelor’s degree in French at the age of 85.

Irene Garrison holds her UMSL diploma. (Photo by UMSL Office of Executive Events)

Garrison was born in Shanghai, China, to a Russian mother and a Polish father. They had met and married there after fleeing their home countries to escape war and revolutions. Garrison’s father, an accountant who was fluent in several languages, was able to begin making a life for his family there.

In 1949, the Garrison family was evacuated from Shanghai to escape the impending communist takeover of Mao Zedong, and taken by the International Refugee Organization to Tubabao in the Philippines and placed in a camp for Polish, Russian and Jewish refugees. They had to wait two years to find out where they’d be placed and ended up in St. Louis.

Garrison’s father stayed behind because he’d gotten x-rays of his lungs that were concerning, and was therefore detained. Sponsored by a Polish family, Garrison, her mother and sister were set up in North St. Louis to share a room in a woman’s apartment on Maffitt Avenue.

St. Louis embraced the family.

“It was very welcoming,” Garrison said. “When I started in the school, all of the students came up to my desk and welcomed me in some way. They said, ‘Welcome, we’re glad to have you here.’ And I’ve had those friends ever since. We still meet together.”

Garrison’s father eventually joined the family in St. Louis but passed away a year later. Garrison was then a sophomore at St. Alphonsus Rock High School, and her life in general became more difficult, including figuring out how to pay for college. She remained focused on her studies, and her school helped her get a part-time job as a clerk, at what was then known as Barnes Hospital.

She worked from 3:30-6:30pm three days a week and on Saturday mornings to help her family with expenses. It was during that time Garrison met her husband, Arnold, whom she married right after high school.

Garrison’s mother, then a widow, was raising two children in the 1950s, which wasn’t easy. But they had support, and no matter what, things always seemed to work out.

“My mother did have friends who helped out,” Garrison said. “Through the help of friends and angels, somehow she made it. It just amazes me how she did that.”

After high school, Garrison began working as a secretary at the hospital. After marrying, she got a different job at Ramco in St. Louis but had to give up her position when she reached the six-month mark in her first pregnancy. So Garrison became mostly a stay-at-home-mom, though she later worked on the weekends at Jewish Hospital in the radiology department as a clerk.

Irene Garrison receives her diploma from interim dean of the college of Arts and Sciences, Frank Grady, at the December 2022 graduation. (Photo by UMSL Office of Executive Events)

In 1966, when her daughter was a bit older and she had a 2-year-old son, she decided to go to back to school and enrolled in college for the first time. With two small children, one class was all she could handle. Her first class at UMSL was Psychology I.

“There were only two buildings there at that time,” she said. “One for administration and the other one with the classrooms.”

She continued to take one class per semester until 1972, when her husband’s job transferred him to Jefferson City, Missouri. She then enrolled at Lincoln University, taking a few English and literature courses.

A couple of years later, Garrison and her husband moved again to Chillicothe, Missouri, where there was no university, so she had to halt her studies. She got another hospital job as a transcriptionist in medical records. A coworker suggested she take a test to become a coder, and she took a two-year correspondence course. She had to take the exam in St. Louis and passed.

In the late 1970s Garrison and her husband moved back to St. Louis, where she worked at DePaul Hospital as a medical coder. After several years of not going to college, she couldn’t wait to resume her studies at UMSL, continuing to take one class per semester.

She stopped again around 1990 because work and family obligations had become more demanding.

“With the new advances in medicine, procedures and everything, there was a lot of study for my job,” she said. “So I had to suspend my UMSL education for a while.”

Though all the delays were upsetting, Garrison never gave up on her pursuit of a degree. She wouldn’t return to UMSL until 2018, after she retired, and again, taking one class per semester, she made it all the way through, finally, with no interruptions.

She fulfilled her dream for herself and her father, whose wish for her to go to college was a source of motivation. Her academic advisors, Sarah Klekamp and Violaine White, also helped Garrison stay on track. She also warmly acknowledges her husband, Arnold, as a key source of support and inspiration.

“He deserves a lot of credit, or most of the credit, as he has put up with my study schedule, my meltdowns and all those things,” she said. “All the hours I’ve spent staying up late at night studying.”

Nearly 30 people, including Garrison’s family and neighbors, who’d rooted her on and helped with things like setting up her UMSL account so she could do virtual study, gathered at a restaurant in her O’Fallon, Missouri, neighborhood to celebrate her decades-long achievement.

Garrison was born with resolve, and even though others have viewed her lengthy pursuit of a college degree as a feat of tremendous determination, her perspective is more simplistic.

“I’m just completing what I started years ago,” she said. “I just wanted to get it done. I always finish what I start.”


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